This fast-paced and well-researched work of historical fiction focuses on a American teenager, Michael Daniels, raised in New Jersey by his loving, Russian Jewish grandmother, Emma. Emma doesn’t reveal much about her background, but Michael knows that she’s hardworking and reliable — and that she travels alone to Europe each year, returning with extravagant gifts.
While the wider world feels the effects of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Cold War, Michael’s own life in suburbia seems predictable and dull. Craving excitement, he starts working as a nighttime radio rock-and-roll DJ, adopting the persona of “The Mad Russian,” an outlandish spoof on Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Michael doesn’t realize he has an underground following in the motherland, including the small town of Otvali.
When Emma is murdered, Michael’s American life collides with his Russian roots. Desperately trying to solve the mystery of his grandmother’s death, he is sent by her friends to Munich to work for Taft Mifflin — a possible spy and the manager of Four Freedoms Radio, which broadcasts to the Soviet Union. In Germany, Michael attends the dedication of Dachau concentration camp as a “war memorial” and is shocked. Naively, he publicly questions Germans’ reluctance to acknowledge the Holocaust.
Michael is endangered, and hides in Russia under the protection of Der Schmuggler, the foster father of beautiful Yuli Kosoy, a Holocaust orphan (and an original fan of “The Mad Russian”). Yuli assists her foster father in smuggling American goods into the USSR. Her loneliness mirrors Michael’s, and the two eventually team up in search of Emma’s murderer.
Though it’s a challenge at times to keep track of all of the characters and the complex plotlines, it’s well worth it to enjoy this spellbinding page-turner. Peter Golden successfully depicts the effects of the Holocaust on the lives of resourceful survivors in Russia, France, and the United States. The secrecy maintained by many survivors — and their heirs’ subsequent ignorance of their traumatic histories — is also explored. Golden gives the reader a unique look at the Cold War era by depicting it from both the point of view of Michael, an intelligent but oblivious Jewish American kid, and that of Yuli, a hard-edged Jewish teen toughing it out in Russia.
This tale is suitable for anyone interested in the post – World War II era. It could also prove quite successful in engaging young adults, who will easily relate to Michael and Yulia, and be moved by Emma’s story just as Michael is during his coming-of-age. Though the characters may be viewed as somewhat caricature-like by the more knowledgeable reader, Golden’s storytelling is consistently engaging and fresh.