This mystery/suspense novel by Caroline B. Cooney is written for kids ages 11 to 14 and is published by Waterbrook Press, a division of Random House. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Jared Finch does not want refugees from Liberia staying in his home. But his parents and sister, Mopsy, agree to the plan when their church asks them to be a host family. So the Amabo family is welcomed into the Finch household, and both families begin to learn a little more about godly love and the terrors of evil. Mattu, the teen son, wants an education and is excited about getting a part-time job. Alake, the teen daughter, does not make eye contact or speak. Most of the time, she seems to be mentally incoherent. Only Jared notices that the teens do not look like each other or their parents. Even stranger, the adults, Celestine and Andre, do not treat either teen with the love of a parent. Eventually the reader learns that a man named Victor killed the real Amabo family and forced this assortment of people to smuggle uncut diamonds into the United States. Then the Amabo imposters and Victor were sent to different refugee sponsors in different states. When Victor murders his way through Texas to reach the Amabo imposters in Connecticut, Alake, who is considered a child-soldier because she murdered others in the hope of saving her sister, is willing to sacrifice herself in order to save Mopsy. In the end, Celestine and Andre embrace Mattu and Alake as their own children, and a small apartment is found for the family.
Victor is an evil man who murders and maims people at his whim. His presence strikes terror into the hearts of refugees, and he uses their emotions to do whatever he wants to do. When Alake was 12, he forced her to kill her teachers in order to save her sister. After Alake did what he asked, he murdered her sister. Celestine and Andre appear to be good people, but they do not have compassion for Mattu and Alake, their supposed children, until the end of the book when they choose to become their parents. Celestine lies to the Finches about their identity and family relations. She lies to Mopsy about Victor in order to conceal the truth about the diamonds. She tells Alake that Americans always want to believe the best about people and so they will easily believe a lie if it keeps them from knowing there is true evil in the world. Drew Finch lets his wife run the household and is gone most of the time. When he is home, though, he takes an active interest in his children and is kind to the Amabos. Kara Finch's over-the-top optimism runs her household. Although Jared is embarrassed by it, the family and the Amabos seem to rely on it.
Jared struggles with the idea of how a God can let bad things happen in the world. He and a girl from his class question the hypocritical actions of the church after a deacon running their building fund gambles away the money that Jared's father and others worked so hard to collect. Jared is amazed by Andre's thankfulness toward God. Still, Jared only prays out of necessity and when in dire circumstances. By the end of the book, Jared seems more open to having God in his life, but no decision is made. Celestine and Andre pray from the heart before their meals and appear to have a deep faith in God, but they don't let their religion interfere with the lies they are living that keep them in America. Celestine thinks that most Americans are Christian because they treat each other with brotherly love. Mattu asks Jared if God can ever forgive someone who is evil enough to cut off someone's hands without justification. Jared does not think God could ever forgive someone like that. Alake struggles internally with her guilt and grief. She hears hymns and phrases at church and wonders if God can forgive her; after singing a hymn about faith, she reasons that she can't be forgiven and must bear her burden alone. Kara Finch shows Christ's love to the wife of the man who stole the church's money and invites her to service. Kara exhibits godly compassion.
Other Belief Systems
There is one occurrence of God's name being misused and a mention of women in Africa being raped. Alake remembers her whole school being murdered by Victor and his child-soldiers. The scene where she must decide between killing her teachers or watching her sister die is described in detail. Andre's arms are stubs. He explains that in his country's civil war, the enemy cut off a person's hands so the person would suffer before he died. When that happened to him, he ran with his arms in the air until he found his wife, and she was able to stem the flow of blood. Victor murdered the real Amabo family because they wouldn't smuggle his diamonds into America. Victor kidnaps young boys to make them into soldiers who are crueler than adult soldiers. Victor kills his refugee coordinator, and he kills a woman to get her car. In the end, he intends to kill Alake and Mopsy. When Victor is about to shoot Jared, Alake grabs him, and they plunge into icy water. Victor dies.
Christopher Award for Books for Young People, 2008; ALA-YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2008; NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People, 2008; Junior Library Guild Selection
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Why don't people believe Jared when he mentions that the Amabo family members are not what they seem? How does his initial selfishness hurt his ability to convince others about what he saw? Did Jared learn to share?
- Why do others view Mopsy's enjoyment of life, ability to think the best about others and optimism as naive? What does she do that causes people to view her as immature? Should she stop behaving in this way just to please others? What should she do?
- What is one thing that keeps Jared from believing in God? How is his confusion about a good God allowing bad things to happen to people answered by Andrea? Do you agree that people use their freewill to choose to do bad things to others? Where is God in the midst of these bad things?
- What terrified the Amabos? Do evil men like Victor really exist or are they only found in books? How does Victor strike terror into the hearts of people? What is Victor's primary goal?
- Daniel, one of Jared's schoolmates, said that Mattu had secrets to keep. What does he mean by that? Why is he willing to back up whatever Mattu says happened? Does the truth matter?
- How are the refugee coordinators helpful? How are they tough? What made Kirk Crick unlikeable? What made George Neville likeable? How can two men have the same job and treat people so differently?
- What was Alake's inner struggle? How do bad memories and guilt hurt people? What helped Alake start to feel human again? How did a touch of love and being treated like a valuable human being change Alake?
Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.