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Novels with big themes can make dull reads. In Drive-By Saviours, first-time novelist Chris Benjamin examines the chains of culture and politics and the barriers between established and new Canadians. There's an unusual plot and a character whose vitality and energy illuminate the novel, which took first place in the 2008 Atlantic Writing Competition.

From the first pages, we're deeply involved with Bumi, a gifted child born on an Indonesian island to a fisherman father who mistrusts his son's intelligence.

Yusupu thinks his son is "The first five-year-old potentially smarter than the sea." Bumi adores his dad and invents a fishing method that will allow his father to spend less time fishing and more time at play.

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But Yusupu copes badly with unaccustomed leisure. He becomes a drunk, alternately warm and violent toward his son. For Bumi, being with his dad is "like hanging out with a wasp's nest." But Bumi still suffers when he and other island children are plucked from their homes and sent off to a residential school.

Bumi "needs books for joy," but school is so stressful his intellectual hunger dims and the ticks and rituals of his obsessive-compulsive disorder escalate. Too much of an individual to blend into the conformist society under General Suharto, he is eventually accused of murder and forced to flee Indonesia, winding up in Toronto, where he meets Mark, a well-meaning social worker trying to help refugees.

Like Bumi, Mark is damaged by his childhood. The cold impersonality of Toronto also troubles him and he connects to others primarily through his habit of drawing the faces of strangers glimpsed on the subway.

The bones of the story make Drive-By Saviours sound like a pretty gloomy read. It is anything but. Benjamin's depictions of life in Indonesia and Toronto are affectionate, the voices of his characters occasionally joyful and often witty. His characters are humanly flawed, authentic.

Benjamin, who is also a journalist with an interest in social justice, has said that Bumi is based on the extraordinary refugees he met while working as diversity co-ordinator for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. The newcomers' strength and their ability to start anew in Canada fascinated him.

The title Drive-By Saviours refers to the power brokers of the world who finance and enact aid programs without understanding the people they're trying to help. This system is illustrated by the high-handed way Bumi and other island children are sent off to residential school. They are not allowed to visit their families. They are taught to read and write, then sent home without employment, only to find that many family fishing businesses have collapsed without their help.

The system is explained to Bumi by Syam, a communist-sympathizing teacher. "The reason you're at this new school is that someone across the ocean got the idea that everybody in the world should be literate and Suharto saw the chance to get some easy money from the World Bank," Syam says. "They want to make you civilized Bumi. The only surprise is that the government actually followed through with a school, but I'm sure Suharto got his share somehow."

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Eventually, Bumi and Mark become friends; it's a lifeline the reader is glad to see thrown to two lonely and likeable men.

Journalist and author Carol Moreira spent almost a decade in Asia, including stints in Hong Kong, Seoul, Taipei and Shanghai. She now lives in Nova Scotia.

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