________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 7 . . . . November 23, 2007

cover

Bifocal.

Deborah Ellis & Eric Walters.
Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2007.
280 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-1-55455-062-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-55455-036-4 (hc.).

Subject Headings:
Muslims-Civil rights-Juvenile fiction.
Race relations-Fiction-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.

Review by Lisa Doucet.

**** /4

excerpt:

She draws an equation on the board, and that's when we hear it. Faint at first, but growing quickly stronger. The rhythm of boots on cement, pounding the floor-tough and powerful.

"Sounds like the football team has escaped again," Ms. Singh laughs. She doesn't have much use for violent sports. There's enough violence in real life, she often tells us. Can't we have grace in our recreation?

We turn our attention back to the board. The boots keep coming.

Then there is a loud banging on the door.

"Perhaps they're looking for recruits," Ms. Singh jokes. It really is a joke because we're quite a geeky- looking lot. I'm the most athletic in the room, but only because my sister keeps dragging me out on the basketball court so she can prove how much better she is at it than I am."Police! Open up!"

"We're all safe in here!" Ms. Singh calls out, making no move toward the door.

"Ms. Singh, this is Principal Atkins. Unlock the door."

"But that's against lockdown procedure," she calls back.

There's a lot of huffing and puffing outside the door. We hear a key in the lock. Of course the principal has a master key.

And then the room is full of police. Not the regular blue police. These officers are all dressed in black, with rifles and helmets and visors pulled down over their faces so that we can't see their features.

They go straight for Azeem and for me. We are lifted up and pushed down again, flat on the floor, face down. My nose lands on Nadia's foot. She gently lifts my head and puts it back on the floor. 

All of this takes maybe two seconds. I don't have time to yell or protest.

 

A seemingly ordinary suburban high school makes headlines around the world when one of its students is arrested for suspected involvement in a terrorist cell in this thought-provoking and timely novel by award-winning authors Deborah Ellis and Eric Walters. Grade eleven football star Jay is with his teammates when someone shouts that the school is filled with policemen and the principal then announces that they are in a lockdown. Meanwhile, another grade eleven student, Haroon, is rehearsing with his Reach for the Top team when the lockdown nnouncement is made. However, unlike the football players who race to find a vantage point from which to survey the strange events that are unfolding, Haroon and his colleagues soon find a group of armed policemen barging into their classroom and two of the team members, Haroon and Azeem, are handcuffed and whisked away. Just before loading the two Muslim boys into police cars, Haroon is released. Azeem is not so lucky.

     As Jay and Haroon and countless others watch the news reports and read the newspaper articles in the hours and days that follow, reactions are many and varied. Shock, confusion, disbelief...and fear. Also, outrage and anger. Hatred. In alternating chapters, readers follow Jay and Haroon as they each continue to live their normal lives in the midst of the upheaval that the recent arrests (of Azeem and a number of adult suspects) have caused. Jay, as a relative newcomer to the school, values his role on the football team and the status that he has achieved as one of its key members. Kevin, the team captain, has taken Jay under his wing, and it means a lot to Jay to have such a strong group of friends and to be singled out as a member of that elite group, the school's football heroes. Yet certain things about Kevin trouble Jay, like his anger towards the brown students in their school. Kevin reacts stormily to an article in the paper in which Muslim students were interviewed and claimed that they were treated poorly by the white students at the school, and Kevin gets into a heated exchange with Zana, another Muslim student, when she won't back down from his taunts and barbs. He even blames the brown students for the fact that he and his football cronies don't win the school Halloween costume contest. Although Jay takes pride in being part of the football team and in his friendship with Kevin, he grows increasingly uncomfortable with Kevin's actions and wonders about himself: how far would he be willing to go to be part of the team and/or to protect his new-found friends?

     Haroon, on the other hand, enjoys his quiet existence and prefers to stay out of the spotlight and not make waves. Yet, in light of recent events, that desire proves to be somewhat of a challenge. The police, while making thinly-veiled threats, continue to badger him, insisting that, if he knows anything at all, he should report it to them immediately. Rumours circulating at school assert that Haroon turned Azeem in to get his spot on the Reach for the Top team, and Zana, his own sister, chastises him for being a coward and not doing enough to show solidarity with their fellow Muslims in the face of persecution. Although Haroon wants to be able to just fade into the background, he, too, has a breaking point, and his anger is finally roused first when a bomb threat is called in during the taping of their Reach for the Top match and later when they come home to find their house vandalized. He is enraged by the injustice of it all. However, when Haroon wakes up the next morning, it is with the realization that fear - fear of terror, to be precise - is what has brought them all to this place.

     Jay and Haroon...Haroon and Jay.  Each boy makes one small gesture that symbolizes what each one has discovered about himself and about the tumultuous world in which we live.

     This is a powerful and important book, one that will speak to modern teen readers in a way that they will undoubtedly hear and respond to. The book is written simply and directly, without the subtlety or sophistication that might put off more reluctant readers, but the questions that it raises are ones that are topical and urgently need to be addressed in our world today. Without falling into didacticism, Ellis and Walters thoughtfully depict a full range of reactions and widely-held beliefs and offer readers the opportunity to see not only the vastly different experiences that shape Jay and Haroon's understanding of events, but also how so many others feel and respond to events like 9/11 and the mere threat of anything similar. The book provides no definite answers (readers are left uncertain as to Azeem's fate or even how things will work out for any of the characters involved in the story), but it presents many different points of view and ways of interpreting the same situation.

     The authors have done an outstanding job of portraying the realities of an average North American high school. Jay's description of the cafeteria scene and the way in which it depicts the divisions in the larger school community is particularly spot-on and revealing, as is his chilling narration of the events on Halloween night where he captures the mob mentality with frightening accuracy. This book highlights the complexity of what we've come to think of as "the war on terror" while clearly identifying many simple truths as well: i.e. that fear is the common denominator behind so much, and also the insidious nature of racism. Bifocal should, and will, enjoy a wide readership and would make an excellent choice for class, or group, discussion.

Highly Recommended.

Lisa Doucet is a children's bookseller at Woozles in Halifax, NS.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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