What is in a name? Award-winning playwright and YA novelist Allan Stratton intends to show us in his new book, Borderline.
Mohammed Sabiri is a 15-year-old American-born Muslim kid attending a private boys' school filled with privileged white kids in post-9/11 in Upstate New York. Though his parents shorten his name to Hammed, it's still too uncommon. So, as soon as he has the nerve to convince his parents, he changes it to Sami, his second name.
The one thing he cannot change, however, is the colour of his skin, which he tries to keep as cloaked as possible underneath an oversized hoodie. Still, the Academy boys tease him and, worse, bully him - chasing him down on his bike with their cars and beating him up in the bathroom. While entry into the boys' school is a point of pride for his father, Arman Sabiri, a research director at a medical lab in Rochester, it is the worst decision for Sami. Luckily, he is able to maintain friendships with two neighbourhood boys, Andy and Marty, who become trusted allies.
Family and religious traditions, coupled with a rather strict father, keep Sami from enjoying typical teenage adventures like weekends at the cottage with his pals, but after a promised trip to Toronto to see a Blue Jays game falls apart, Sami defies his Dad and crosses the invisible Lake Ontario border into Canada with Andy and Marty. When the cops show up and rat him out for trespassing on private property, Sami wavers between guilt for shaming the family and anger that his life is just a little too controlled.
What he doesn't know is things are about to get much worse. Just as he's settling into his punishment of no activities other than school, the FBI shows up to arrest Arman. While Sami's been busy thinking his dad was having an affair (the reason the baseball plans changed) in actual fact he is accused of being part of a terrorism plot headquartered in Toronto.
In history class the Academy boys are learning about earlier conflicts - from the Salem witch hunts through to the Holocaust - while Mr. Bernstein keeps a watchful eye on the bullying incidents, trying to intervene on Sami's behalf. Since Sami has learned early on that nothing is as it seems, even the spelling of his name (Sami, not Sammy), the help his teacher (also an outsider) offers ends up costing him more than it pays.
While the book's beginning is an instruction and commentary on race, class, prejudice, religion and family tradition in a changed world, the latter part is a page-turning mystery as young Sami does everything in his power to save his father, whom he knows in his heart is innocent.
Stratton, author of the acclaimed Chanda's Secrets and Chanda's Wars, knows when to make his points on religious and cultural tolerance, and when to just let the story take over. The message is not necessarily overtaken by the action and plot, but it's subtle enough as to be a good instruction tool for parents and teachers, while keeping the kids on the edge of their seats. This is especially true when the adventure takes the three teen boys illegally across the water border into Toronto's Little India, in search of the young Tariq Hasan, the leader of the "Brotherhood of Martyrs," the group behind the alleged terror plot.
Since nothing is as it seems, Stratton ends the story with a twist and the most unsubtle but necessary message of all: Practice tolerance and reserve judgment.
Carla Maria Lucchetta is a Toronto writer and broadcaster.