52 pages 1 hour read

Lawrence Hill

The Illegal

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Canadian author Lawrence Hill published The Illegal in 2015. This fast-paced fictional political thriller, which focuses on a young undocumented marathon runner, uses multiple perspectives and irony to question what it really means to be a citizen. Hill is a noted contributor to the fiction and nonfiction genres, particularly for his work on race. The Illegal furthers this work through the thriller and satire genres. An award-winning author, Hill has received the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Rogers Writer’s Trust Fiction Prize, in addition to several other accolades.

Plot Summary


The Illegal is set in a fictional country called Freedom State. The main character, Keita Ali, runs marathons to try to save his sister’s life and his own. Their home country, Zantoroland, was taken over by a cruel dictator. Keita’s mother and father have already died, and the government is holding his sister on ransom. Keita’s only hope to secure her release is to win enough races to earn her ransom in prize money. However, the big money races are in Freedom State, where Keita is considered an “illegal.” He joins up with a corrupt sports agent named Anton Hamm to obtain passage to Freedom State. Once there, he sneaks away from Hamm and goes into hiding, entering races under the name Roger Bannister.

In Freedom State, Keita gains notoriety for his running. He becomes the central character around which the others orbit. Keita interacts with members of Freedom State government, as well as inhabitants of the ghettoized AfricTown. AfricTown and Zantoroland are not so different from each other, and their shared fictional history becomes significant to the plot. In Hill’s imagining, Freedom State relied on slavery for centuries to build its wealth and status as the third-richest nation in the world. When Freedom State abolished slavery, it deported the slaves and their offspring to Zantoroland. It used skin color to determine who could remain in Freedom State as citizens. Those deported continued to return to Freedom State, living in open hiding in AfricTown. By illustrating the dangerous and corrupt conditions in Zantoroland, the novel contextualizes why people risk their lives and potential deportation to escape to Freedom State. This novel draws direct comparisons to the contemporary political scene in several countries, including the United States, Canada, and Western European nations.

Keita successfully remains in hiding while training for the upcoming Buttersby Marathon. He is helped along the way by the “Queen of AfricTown,” Lula Distefano, and housed by Ivernia Beech, an elderly white woman who is ashamed of her country’s treatment of black people. Keita also befriends a young black aspiring documentarian, a street-smart journalist, and a black female police officer. All of these people support and protect him from the wrath of his angry sports agent and the Freedom State government. Viola, the journalist, travels to Zantoroland to research the suspicious deaths of Keita’s father and a sex worker named Yvette Peters. While there, Viola is forcefully taken from her hotel room and placed in jail with Keita’s sister, on the charge of spying.

Keita earns enough prize money to meet his sister’s ransom demand. With Ivernia’s help, he sends the money to Zantoroland. John, the documentarian, has cleverly taped highly sensitive meetings and wrongdoings of those with high power in the prime minister’s office, so he bribes his way into paperwork that allows Keita to remain safely in Freedom State. Keita’s sister and Viola are released and allowed to come to Freedom State. Once home, Viola and John uncover a powerful secret: Freedom State and Zantoroland have a corrupt deal in which they sell information to each other to capture, detain, and often kill refugees attempting to cross the border in fishing boats. Similarly, those illegally residing in AfricTown are spied on and “returned” to Zantoroland, even though they were born in Freedom State. At the novel’s end, the parties benefiting from these transactions are exposed as the prime minster of Zantoroland, the prime minister of Freedom State, and Lula DiStefano. The Freedom State prime minister and his henchmen are sent to prison. After Viola writes an exposé on Lula, Lula escapes and is never heard from again, apparently evading punishment for her years of human trafficking.