This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 21.3.
Away Running (2016)
Away Running begins and ends with running away. The opening scene presents Matt (Mathieu Dumas from Montreal) and Free (Freeman Omonwole Behanzin from San Antonio, Texas) and some of their teammates on the American football team, the Diables Rouges, in Villeneuve, France. Villeneuve is a suburb of Paris noted for its mainly poor, immigrant population, and a concomitantly high level of racial tension. Taking a short-cut through a construction zone, the boys are stopped—unfairly accosted—by the police. Immediately, readers are immersed in the fear these teens face: they have done nothing wrong, but they know that doesn’t matter. They will be arrested. Their parents will be called. They will not be able to play in the under-20s championship final in four days. They run.
Matt, too, is running. His mother is an editor for a Canadian women’s magazine; his brother and sister have both been successful in business; Matt is similarly slated to attend Orford College—an excellent business school with no sports: no football. Stealing from his college funds, Matt runs to his football friend in Paris.
Free is in Paris on a summer-school study-abroad trip, on scholarship and feeling ostracized from his white classmates. When he meets Matt, and is given the opportunity to stay and play for the Diables Rouges, he jumps at the chance. But Free, too, is running from the reality of his life in the United States.
Much of the novel is taken up with the relationships among Matt and Free; Moussa (Moose), their closest teammate; the volatile Sidi and his sister Aïda; and the other teammates, who both respect the ’Ricains for their playing abilities and resent them for their privilege. Away Running demands not only that readers consider issues of privilege and race, but also that they understand how deeply embedded our cultural ethos lies, and how complicated intercultural and interracial interactions really are. The prejudice the Diables Rouges players and their community experience is not ultimately about race, pure and simple, as Matt learns. Despite being African-American, Free is not persecuted with Moose and Sidi and the other non-White players. Being foreign, regardless of colour, sets him outside of the cultural dynamics at play in the lower-income Paris suburbs at the same time as his race—as well as being from a similarly low-income, oppressed “hood” in San Antonio—allows him to understand those dynamics more than Matt can.
Issues of race, of cultural understanding, of teens’ social relations are set against the American football season in Paris. The Diables Rouges are a middle-of-the-pack team, and much of the boys’ growth in understanding results from their involvement in the team as they develop to meet their potential. What makes this more than a “there is no I in team” story is the true human messages that the authors impart through the carefully and very successfully developed characters. We really get to know not only Matt and Free, but Moose and Aïda, and the full cast of narrative support. We become fully invested in their lives long before the final scenes are played, before Away Running stops being about football at all, and becomes entirely about race, culture, politics, and police brutality. It was not surprising to learn from the Authors’ Notes at the back of the book that the final scenes are based on a real incident in France in 2005. It is to the authors’ great credit that the violence of the final scenes, the gross unfairness of the situation, flows seamlessly out of the entirely fictional characters and storyline they have created.
Away Running is a book about football, best suited for teenaged boys who will engage with the mentality and language of these fictional teenaged boys from the disadvantaged spaces of their cities. But it is far more than that: at its heart, it is a book about what it means to be human, regardless of class, race, or ethnicity. A football book that moved me to tears; I never thought I’d see that.