A Place at the Table

Saa­dia Faruqi and Lau­ra Shovan

  • Review
By – February 10, 2020

Is any­thing unim­por­tant in sixth grade? This is a sto­ry about pre­teens on the verge of every­thing that is to come, from var­ied back­grounds and with com­pli­cat­ed life sit­u­a­tions, who inter­act with one anoth­er while try­ing to fig­ure out who they are, who their friends are, and what’s impor­tant in life.

The well-defined char­ac­ters are most­ly sixth-grade girls, but fathers, broth­ers, and ado­les­cent male friends round out the mix. The girls are very involved in estab­lish­ing their own iden­ti­ties. One stu­dent, Sara Hameed, a new immi­grant and a Pak­istani Mus­lim, is chal­lenged both by her oth­er­ness and hav­ing just trans­ferred from the small pri­vate Islam­ic Iqra Acad­e­my to Poplar Springs Mid­dle School, a larg­er and more diverse pub­lic school. Lone­ly but proud, her sense of iso­la­tion is height­ened by hav­ing to sit in on the South Asian cook­ing class her hijab-wear­ing moth­er is teach­ing at the school. The salary from this class aug­ments Mrs. Hameed’s not-as-yet prof­itable cater­ing busi­ness. The finan­cial­ly-chal­lenged Hameed fam­i­ly strug­gles to find its place in the Unit­ed States, while Sara grap­ples with lov­ing and admir­ing her fam­i­ly but wish­ing that every­thing was eas­i­er. She longs to return to her for­mer school and recon­nect with friends there.

Oth­er main char­ac­ters also deal with less than ide­al fam­i­ly sit­u­a­tions. Eliz­a­beth, who is Jew­ish, lives with her depressed British moth­er, her fre­quent­ly absent, worka­holic father, and the unre­al­is­tic but painful fear that her moth­er will desert the fam­i­ly to return to Eng­land. Both Mrs. Hameed and Elizabeth’s moth­er, Mrs. Shain­mark, the only non U.S. cit­i­zens in their respec­tive fam­i­lies, have been, for var­i­ous rea­sons, avoid­ing tak­ing the exam for U.S. citizenship.

Eliz­a­beth and Sara become unlike­ly bud­dies whose friend­ship is high­light­ed by food. Mrs. Hameed’s cook­ing class is so woven into the sto­ry that the smells of cur­ry, turmer­ic and oth­er exot­ic spices become strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed with many of the events that occur as the sto­ry unfolds.

Sus­pi­cion, racism, and con­flict abound as peo­ple learn, in most cas­es, to look beyond skin col­or and reli­gion to form friend­ships based on the aspects of life which unite them. The prej­u­dices are even­ly shared, although Sara, per­haps as a result of her stress­ful life, car­ries more anger and bit­ter­ness, imag­in­ing the worst of her fel­low stu­dents even when no ill-will seems intend­ed. Exam­ples of less than benign inten­tions are also evi­dent among the stu­dents, some of which clear­ly fil­ter down from the atti­tudes of their parents.

The char­ac­ters become more nuanced as the com­plex but not over­whelm­ing plot plays out. Words in Urdu, the nation­al lan­guage of Pak­istan, spice up the sto­ry. One yearns for the tan­ta­liz­ing recipes being taught in Mrs. Hameed’s class and one can almost smell the scent of laven­der that Eliz­a­beth asso­ciates with her recent­ly deceased Eng­lish grand­moth­er. The read­er is advised not to read this book when hungry!

Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and free­lance writer, Helen Weiss Pin­cus, has taught mem­oir writ­ing and cre­ative writ­ing through­out the NY Metro area to senior cit­i­zens and high school stu­dents. Her work has been pub­lished in The New York Times, The Record, The Jew­ish Stan­dard, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She recent­ly added Bub­by” to her job description.

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