Book explores Lewiston's cultural diversity through soccer

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The cover of “One Goal,” by Amy Bass. The book follows the Lewiston High School soccer team on its journey to a state title while also exploring the players’ journeys to Lewiston. (Submitted photo)

In November 2015, two weeks after the Lewiston High School boys’ soccer team won a state championship for the first time, college history professor and author Amy Bass wrote a feature story for CNN.

Moments after its posting, the vitriol began.

“It kind of blew up,” Bass said. “USA Today wrote a piece about that piece . . . it was a slow week, I guess? But the reaction to that piece really caught me off guard. I was stunned by the really ugly conversations that people wanted to have about immigrants, and America, and who does or doesn’t belong, or who should and shouldn’t be on a soccer team — really visceral, hateful stuff coming into my email and onto my voice mail.”

The first recorded comment, still listed chronologically below the original story, was this:

“I have heard that 80 of Mooselums (sic) in America vote for, and support, the Democratic Party; the Party must have these voters so I am now 100% FOR Obama’s refugee import plan, since I read that statistic.”

Clearly, Bass thought, she had touched a nerve.

Already a published novelist three times over, Bass spoke with a publisher and then with Lewiston coach Mike McGraw.

“I hadn’t thought much about it after the first piece, but then for the next 48 hours, all I could think about was how I would do it,” Bass said. “I wanted to contextualize the story within the history of Lewiston, and within America at large.”

The end result is “One Goal,” Bass’ fourth book, which takes readers behind the scenes of the soccer team’s run to a state title, but also behind the scenes of their everyday lives, and into the backstories that forged their characters. And it is set against the backdrop of racial tension that continues to divide cities, large and small, all over the country.

“At the time, it felt really, really relevant,” Bass said. “And fast forward to now, and the book’s coming out, it’s even more relevant with everything going on right now.”

The process

Once Bass committed to the book, the real work began.

And the research was, in part, a homecoming for the author: She is a Bates College graduate.

“I hadn’t lived in Lewiston since 1992,” Bass reluctantly admitted, her voice trailing off on the last digit. “And I have to say, I was a pretty typical college student. And one of the first things I had a hard time getting over is how much more ‘in’ Lewiston Bates is now than it was when I was there. When I am on campus, I am amazed at how much more flow there is between the campus and the city at large.”

And, clearly, the city’s demographics were different, too, a fact that was the impetus for the story. More than 7,000 immigrants from several countries — mostly Somalia — had turned this primarily French-Canadian former mill city into a cultural melting pot.

A forward-thinking coaching staff led by Mike McGraw provided even more inspiration for Bass.

“A lot of people keep asking me to tell the story about how I put the team together,” McGraw said, referring to a story he’s told many times over about how he intermingled his team during tryouts to reflect the players’ burgeoning diversity.

“I can’t remember what year that was, but anyone else in my position, any coaches, they would have done the same thing,” he said. “Our coaching fraternity, they look at that in the sense that, the only way we’re going to be successful is if we do things together.”

Bass immersed herself in the project.

“I spent a ton of time just hanging out in Lewiston,” Bass said. “Being at practice, going to youth track meets, sitting in the bleachers, talking to whatever parents were there, sisters and brothers . . . It was an unusual research agenda because it really was the art of just hanging out. And then it started to unfold. I was impatient at the beginning, and I had to learn to be very patient, but that was my problem. That was me thinking, ‘This is my to-do list,’ and I had to get over my original list and rework it.”

McGraw said it was an adjustment, at first, to have a full-time shadow, but one that he and those around him made very quickly.

“I didn’t tell anybody to do anything other than what they normally would do,” McGraw said. “I introduced her to people that we met. She made sure she wasn’t a distraction. You could tell right away, the quality of person she is, her intentions were all right. And I don’t mean she was going to be all sunshine and lollipops and things like that, but I knew she was doing something that was great. She had this good vibe about her, she was there for the right reasons. There was no agenda. She’s a historian, and she was there recording history.”

And the players and their families cooperated.

“They’re pretty open; they have nothing to hide,” McGraw said. “It’s their lives, and they generally are just good people.”

The context

It all started with soccer. It’s the first thing Bass talked about with McGraw, and with the players, past and present. Despite the obvious social themes in the book, soccer is the common thread.

“I started with the games, I started with the arc of the games,” Bass said. “I knew Mike was the first person I wanted to sit down with . . . and that first interview with Mike, I’m pretty sure it’s close to a four-hour recording, that transcript goes on for days. And I also read everything, and I mean everything — every blog post, every Instagram post, newspaper articles. In fact, (former Sun Journal sports writer) Kevin Mills’ work was a big piece of that. And when I met him, I almost fell gratefully at his feet because there was such good color about the players and about the games.”

From there, Bass said, players opened up about their lives — in Lewiston, elsewhere in the United States, and in refugee camps on the other side of the world.

“They’d be talking along and they’d mention something in passing, about their past, and they’d say, ‘but you don’t want to hear about all that,’” Bass said. “And I was like, ‘Yes, yes I do.’”

Weaving the players’ personal stories into the context of the team’s run to a state championship was an integral part of the book.

“I was a student as much as I was a writer and a researcher, because I was being taught all the time,” Bass said, “by members of the Somali community, by players, by family. I was constantly learning.”

“It’s my fourth book, and I wrote this in a way I’ve never written about anything before,” she said.

For another perspective on the issue of immigration as it pertained to Lewiston and its history, Bass said she gained a lot of it during what she called her “favorite part” of the research.

“The single best moment I had writing this book, I was sitting at the back of Mike’s classroom, and he was done for the day,” Bass said. “He put his books down, and I was going through old rosters, and he said, ‘You want to go out to my mom’s?’”

Bass had wanted to meet McGraw’s mother.

“You talk about the long arc of Lewiston’s history, his mom represents all of that,” she said.

“Let’s go,” McGraw told her. And off they went.

“She had pulled out every scrapbook — this is what she does, she is her family’s historian — and we spent the rest of the day there,” Bass said. “Seeing Lewiston through her eyes, and seeing her son through her eyes, and his coaching through her eyes … it was incredible. It had nothing to do with soccer; it had everything to do with Lewiston. It was amazing.”

‘Impossibly local’

That Lewiston became the backdrop for a book rich in themes of immigration, racial divide and, yes, soccer, still mystified people, and at first there may have been concerns about an author “from away” swooping in to take a shot at Lewiston.

But McGraw was sold from the moment he heard about the project and met Bass.

“When she goes after information, she’s a bulldog for research,” McGraw said. “She backs up everything with research. I’ve read two of her books, and in the book about (American sprinters Tommie Smith, John) Carlos and (Lee) Evans, there are 40 pages of references. She crosses her t’s and dots her i’s and she backs up everything. And she’s truly a wonderful writer.”

McGraw said he hopes the book will help inspire others to realize that anyone can make a difference in their own community if they put their mind to it.

“I hope that this encourages other communities to say, ‘There is some good stuff going on here,’” McGraw said. “There are some great kids out there, all over the place, who don’t get a lot of attention, and some kids don’t realize the impact they have. But they do.”

While rooted in Lewiston, its team and its players, a similar story is likely being played out in many small cities and towns across the country.

“The way I kept describing it and pitching it is that it’s impossibly local,” Bass said. “And yet, it’s about everyone. It had to transcend 2015, it had to transcend that one moment. And that moment is awesome, right? So it sort of plays to both sides. ‘Oh, you’re a soccer fan? You should read this, because this team outscored opponents in this one season by numbers that are going to blow your mind.’ On the other hand, ‘Oh, you’re not a soccer fan? Then you should read this because it’s about humanity.’ We should all be interested in that.”

“One Goal” author Amy Bass (Rodney Bedsole/Photo)

Upcoming Maine appearances

Amy Bass will be in Lewiston and Portland meeting people and signing copies of her book, “One Goal.” The local schedule is as follows:

Monday, March 12

3 p.m. — Maine Immigrant and Refugee Service, 57 Birch St., Lewiston

6 p.m. — Lewiston Public Library, 200 Lisbon St., Lewiston

Tuesday, March 13

Time to be announced — Book-signing and talk at Pettengill Hall, Bates College

7 p.m. — Longfellow Books, Monument Square, Portland

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