HOME NOW: HOW 6,000 REFUGEES TRANSFORMED AN AMERICAN TOWN By Cynthia Anderson Public Affairs, 2019 319 pages, $28

Regarding immigration, journalist Walter Lippman (1889-1974) once wrote: “The great social adventure of America is no longer the conquest of the wilderness but the absorption of 50 different peoples.” And in Maine, there is no city facing a greater immigrant absorption than Lewiston.

“Home Now” is Maine author Cynthia Anderson’s provocative and insightful commentary on the dramatic influx of African Muslim refugees and asylum-seekers settling in Lewiston since 2001, and how these immigrants have changed a predominantly white fading mill town into a “large-scale social experiment.” Anderson is the award-winning author of “River Talk,” a collection of short stories (2014). She is also a journalist who surprisingly admits to a journalistic bias in this story.

Anderson tells the stories of many Somali Muslims now living in Lewiston (the African refugee population also includes people from the Congo, Burundi and other countries), vividly describing the fear, uncertainty, hopes and dreams of new lives in America. She relates the various pathways that brought 6,000 African refugees to Lewiston (which is not one-sixth of the city’s population), where they’ve been greeted by curiosity, suspicion, disdain, ignorance and intolerance from some, and welcomed with warmth and acceptance by others.

She describes incidents of racism and fear-mongering, and has little good to say about the immigration policies of President Donald Trump or former governor Paul LePage. Best, and most important, are Anderson’s colorful descriptions of Somali men, women and children, their culture, language, religion, family units and the difficulty of assimilating into American society, determined to become self-sufficient.

Anderson wisely acknowledges that “progress is real but precarious,” and that the city and its diverse population have much to learn and work out. A positive sign is the Nov. 2019 election of a young Somali woman to the city council. It seems Walter was right.

 

FARNSWELL By Christopher Fahy Limerock Books, 2019 197 pages, $14.95

When Thomaston author Christopher Fahy puts out a book, readers never quite know what to expect. His two most recent novels, “Winterhill” and “Foreverglades,” were as different as night and day. “Winterhill” was a dark tale of medical quackery, and “Foreverglades” was a hilarious spoof of perpetual youth.

“Farnswell,” his 15th novel, is a clever blend of subtle mystery, poignant innocence, and the satisfying realization that good things really do happen to good people.

It’s 1962 in New Jersey, and 22-year-old almost-college graduate Tim Ramsey needs a job. He wants to be a teacher, so he applies for a position as a teacher’s assistant at the Farnswell School. He doesn’t know Farnswell is a residential school for children with disabilities.

Tim quickly learns most students are over 50 years old, students for life, and that the school originally was called “The Farnswell School for the Mentally Deficient and Peculiarly Backward.” There are a lot of oddballs at Farnswell, including the staff. This seems like a TV episode of “The Twilight Zone,” Tim’s favorite show, but his youthful inexperience means Tim is non-judgmental, patient and considerate, and the students and staff like him.

Tim and his staff friend Pudge embark on some wacky adventures including turning an autistic artist into an art-world sensation; taking an elderly woman trick-or-treating on Halloween; giving a man his first train ride; and cheering on a boy at a basketball free-throw contest.

A dorm fire, an embezzler and shrinking finances threaten the school’s future, but Tim and Pudge make a surprising discovery is a dusty old attic. Tim solves the mystery of an obscure European trip 30 years before. This is a heart-warming story, funny and sad, but full of warmth and inspiration.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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