“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” When Zomorod Yousefzadeh reads this line from A Street Car Named Desire during her 6th grade drama class she stops and returns to it several times. Tennessee Williams perfectly describes Zomorod’s (aka Cindy because no American mouth seems capable of producing her Iranian name) experience as an immigrant in the United States in the late 1970s. The most recent move from Compton to Newport Beach, California has produced another town of strangers for Cindy and her family to encounter.
These interactions are often difficult, embarrassing, and scary – the perfect mixture of emotions to make middle school in a new town an anxiety filled journey. The first such meeting happens immediately upon arriving at their new condo in Newport Beach. The condo manager (who reminds Cindy of Mrs. Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island) responds to the accented English of Cindy’s father by speaking slowly and loudly and repeating phrases. Introductions with new peers and neighbors usually follow a predictable pattern:
Cool person: “Hi, what’s your name?”
Me: “Zomorod Yousefzadeh.”
Cool person (stepping back, looking scared): “What kind of name is that?”
Me (being extra cheerful and not scary): “I’m from Iran.”
Cool person (looking more scared): “Where is that?”
Cindy is again put in the role of needing to educate American's about the history and geography of the wider world. This changes when she meets an aspiring (sixth grade) journalist Carolyn. Carolyn is sincerely interested in Cindy’s life and background and they become fast friends. Trips to Carolyn’s house become a reprieve from the gloom of Cindy’s mother who refuses to learn English and sits at home watching everything from Three’s Company to The Brady Bunch (contemporary middle grade readers will need to reach for Youtube or reference the memory of an adult to understand some of the references to these shows). Carolyn even interviews Cindy’s father, a petroleum engineer, for a social studies project. These conversations provide a vehicle for Dumas to trace the history of Iran. That history takes an unexpected turn during their 7th grade year when Ayatollah Khomeini leads a religious revolution in Iran.
These events throw the Yousefzadeh family into turmoil. Updates from relatives still in Iran report a complete restructuring of the social order. Women have less rights and career options, wealthy people are being harassed and their belongings are seized, and many Iranians are being imprisoned and tortured. Not long after Khomeini’s rise to power several Americans are taken hostage. The Iran hostage crisis is covered every night on the evening news and suddenly many of Cindy’s neighbors and peers are very aware of her family’s home country. The tension of the crisis drags on into the 8th grade year of middle school. Cindy’s father loses his job; her mother falls into a deeper depression, and now outright hostility begins to bubble up from neighbors and other kids. When the crisis finally ends the kindness of strangers comes to the rescue of Cindy and her family.
Firoozeh Dumas has created a middle grade character with boundless humor and hope. The events of the late 70s are now historical fiction for contemporary readers. Dumas deftly weaves the geopolitical facts and pop culture aesthetic of the time into this immigration story.
Reviewed by Ernie Cox