Soccer becomes a cultural bridge for a Franco-American boy and a newly arrived Somali family in a Maine mill town.
Jacques Gagnon and his father have lived with Jacques’ grandmother since his mother died, his father sinking into alcohol-fueled depression while Grandmère Jeannette supports the family. Middle schooler Jacques hopes to be captain of the soccer team, but taciturn newcomer Mohamed might challenge him. Mohamed may be unfriendly, but his little sister, Kiki, has got a sparkling smile, and soon she and Jacques enjoy a tentative friendship. Ross tackles a lot here. In addition to Jacques’ family and school situations, he must cope with neighborhood petty crook Duane, who seeks to enlist Jacques. Jacques is as earnest as the story he stars in, manfully acknowledging Mohamed’s superior skills and holding out the hand of friendship to Kiki even as he tries to resist Duane. A violent confrontation forces Jacques to make a hard choice, but that it will be the right one is never really in doubt. The story is too slim to handle both its characters and its issues. Jacques’ many classmates and teammates are hard to distinguish. Ross deserves praise for looking at the many everyday difficulties children must face, but she doesn’t give herself time to develop them with nuance. Disappointingly, the vigor and distinctiveness of Jacques’ Franco-American culture is flattened, coming across as generically French.
A well-meaning novel that aims high but misses. (Fiction. 8-12)