ASK ME NO QUESTIONS by Marina Budhos. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2006. Hardcover, 176 pages. $16.95.
Marina Budhos’s third novel is the first she has written for young adults. Though scaled down in language and style, her theme is larger than life: life post-9/11. Budhos tackles the hot-button issue of illegal immigrants in the United States in the atmosphere of suspicion after the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Budhos handles the subject with an even hand, while still making the point that the government’s actions hurt, in many cases, people who were caught in a paradoxical situation: illegal but hard-working and law-abiding.
Aisha and Nadira, the children of two illegal immigrants from Bangladesh live in fear and anxiety, alone, while their father languishes in custody and their mother is in a shelter for attempting to cross into the Canadian border. The story unravels in a very emotional way by not so much focusing on the legalities of such predicaments, but on agonies they inflict on real people often in harrowing and desperate situations. Because of their “invisible” status, the sisters suffer in school, and Aisha, in particular, fears that her senior year will be a waste without the chance to go to college. Why? Because “invisible” people with no residency status cannot fill out financial aid forms—this being just one of the ways in which Budhos shows us how their undocumented status, often with little or no chance of reversing the circumstance, halts the very lives of those suffering through it. The girls are forced to fend for themselves and must be continuously guarded about what they say and who they talk to:
We’re not the only illegals at our school. We’re everywhere. You just have to look. A lot of the kids here were born elsewhere—Korea, China, India, the Dominican Republic. You can’t tell which ones aren’t legal. We try to get lost in the landscape of backpacks and book reports. To find us, you have to pick up the signals. It might be in class when a teacher asks a personal question, and a kid gets this funny, pinched look in his eyes. Or some girl doesn’t want to give her address to the counselor … Ask me no questions, we say silently. And the teachers don’t.
Budhos builds the suspense beautifully and tells a moving tale, while, thankfully avoiding the polemical.