• Review
By – October 16, 2022

Espi­onage and intrigue are at the cen­ter of Kathryn Lasky’s new mid­dle-grade nov­el, a fast-paced World War II nar­ra­tive that com­bines his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy with imag­i­na­tive inven­tion. In a world in which any spy must be able to elude cap­ture, thir­teen-year-old Alice Win­field and her fam­i­ly are mem­bers of a spe­cial breed. Since the time of Tudor Eng­land, their ances­tors have belonged to an orga­ni­za­tion whose mem­bers inher­it the gift of anonymi­ty: that is, no one will remem­ber their faces, allow­ing them to pur­sue and defeat male­fac­tors. In 1944, the Win­fields go after the Nazis, who are out to destroy their coun­try, the Jew­ish peo­ple, and the free world.

Read­ers are con­stant­ly asked to con­sid­er how secret agents must con­ceal their phys­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tics along with their per­son­al qual­i­ties. For instance, when Alice and her fam­i­ly arrive in Berlin, they speak Ger­man and acquire the mark­ers of cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty to pro­tect them­selves from dis­cov­ery. Alice’s iron­ic bent over­lays her descrip­tions of Claus von Stauf­fen­berg — the coura­geous attempt­ed-assas­sin of Hitler — and the hideous Fuhrer him­self. It is dif­fi­cult to mock the Ger­man dic­ta­tor with­out run­ning the risk of min­i­miz­ing his inhu­man­i­ty. Yet Lasky suc­ceeds, in that Alice’s account of his dis­turb­ing actions is nev­er meant to explain, or explain away, the nature of evil.

The sto­ry reach­es its peak when Alice meets David Bloom, a young Jew­ish boy hid­ing from the Nazis. Her mem­ber­ship in a Ger­man youth orga­ni­za­tion for girls has famil­iar­ized her with the pseu­do­science of racism and Nazi eugen­ics. Obses­sions with blood puri­ty and such dan­gers as hav­ing a Jew­ish” nose are a con­stant part of the indoc­tri­na­tion. Alice finds David to be gen­tle and vul­ner­a­ble; she asso­ciates him with a char­ac­ter from one of her favorite books, the frail Col­in of The Secret Gar­den. It is a tes­ta­ment to Lasky’s skill as an author that this lit­er­ary allu­sion is under­stat­ed, a nat­ur­al part of the way Alice inter­prets the world. David’s will­ing­ness to empathize with Alice, mean­while, prompts her to pon­der the mys­ter­ies of who she real­ly is beneath the masks she must assume.

In an illu­mi­nat­ing Author’s Note,” Lasky dis­cuss­es her fas­ci­na­tion with World War II and explains why the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters in her nov­els about the era are not Jew­ish. In admit­ting that she feels drawn to cre­at­ing char­ac­ters who are dis­tant from her per­son­al iden­ti­ty, she artic­u­lates a truth about artis­tic cre­ation and its desire to tran­scend boundaries.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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