Max in the House of Spies: A Tale of World War II (Oper­a­tion Kinderspion) 

  • Review
By – February 15, 2024

Max Bret­zfeld is eleven years old and about to face the most sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges of his young life. His par­ents have made the deci­sion to send him to Eng­land on the kinder­trans­port pro­gram, because life in 1930s Berlin has become unbear­able for Jews. Arriv­ing at his sup­posed haven, Max dis­cov­ers that his host fam­i­ly, also Jew­ish, are so cul­tur­al­ly dif­fer­ent from his own fam­i­ly that he will need to reset all his expec­ta­tions about his her­itage. He’ll also become inti­mate­ly acquaint­ed with British anti­semitism — seem­ing­ly more gen­teel and less threat­en­ing than the Ger­man vari­ety. For­tu­nate­ly, Max has two immor­tal crea­tures” from Jew­ish folk­lore sta­tioned on his shoul­ders. Adam Gidwitz’s new nov­el cir­cum­vents all clichés about iden­ti­ty and crafts a thrilling sto­ry about espionage.

Stein and Berg are super­nat­ur­al beings who argue inces­sant­ly over how to help Max, their dif­fer­ing per­spec­tives act­ed out as a comedic tug-of-war about the boy’s dilem­ma. Stein is the well-known dyb­buk, a dis­em­bod­ied spir­it intent on annoy­ing his cho­sen host. Berg is the less famil­iar kobold, a small gob­lin also known for mis­chief. Their cur­rent mis­sion, how­ev­er, is more con­se­quen­tial. Max, like all of the kinder­trans­port par­tic­i­pants, is dev­as­tat­ed by his sep­a­ra­tion from his par­ents and deter­mined to be reunit­ed with them. His abil­i­ty to con­struct radios, which will be an essen­tial part of the war effort, allows him to stay on top of inter­na­tion­al events. When his emo­tion­al moti­va­tion con­verges with his intel­lec­tu­al and mechan­i­cal skills, an oppor­tu­ni­ty presents itself — but it will involve espi­onage. Gid­witz turns an improb­a­ble premise into a believ­able series of events with an ambigu­ous out­come, to be con­tin­ued in a sequel.

Liv­ing with the wealthy and assim­i­lat­ed Mon­tagu fam­i­ly, Max needs to recal­i­brate his beliefs about how Jews fit into the larg­er soci­ety. The col­or­ful cast of char­ac­ters includes the patri­arch, Mr. Mon­tague; Uncle Ivor, a naive­ly com­mit­ted Com­mu­nist; and the more con­formist Uncle Ewen, whose Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is qui­et­ly assert­ed along­side his British one. The two boys, David and Antho­ny, attend the elite school in which Max also enrolls, and where he learns that dis­dain, if not out­right hatred, for Jews is the norm. If the Eng­lish lan­guage is bare­ly com­pre­hen­si­ble to Max, then the dialect spe­cif­ic to upper-class stu­dents and their haughty teach­ers adds anoth­er lay­er of con­fu­sion. Gid­witz play­ful­ly chal­lenges his read­ers with baf­fling ter­mi­nol­o­gy: There is no rag­ging in yard, even dur­ing a tie, and any rag­ging will result in a very good tan.… Max, you being the low­est form of life in the sec­ond form, you shall be sport come tea.” Wry humor aside, this exchange on the play­ing field rais­es the issue of divi­sive class dif­fer­ences, even as all of Britain is about to con­front a com­mon enemy.

Max’s beloved father is a watch­mak­er, and, ulti­mate­ly, the lessons Max learned from him about fit­ting del­i­cate pieces togeth­er in a care­ful process will be applied to his new role as a spy. Every obsta­cle seems des­tined to defeat Max, but each one is trans­formed into a test that he can pass.

The ques­tion of what it means to be a Jew in the eyes of non-Jews is not eas­i­ly resolved. Lord Roth­schild, one of sev­er­al his­tor­i­cal fig­ures in the nov­el, describes the para­dox of his life as a pow­er­ful leader: Because while we can hop back and forth between our two iden­ti­ties — we can also be pushed.… So what is a Jew? The tip of the top? Or beneath the heel of the boot?” Adam Gid­witz brings all his gifts as a writer to this peren­ni­al question.

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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