Marty Rafner is an ordinary American boy living in Palmetto, Kansas in 1953. He is Jewish and his parents are both academics at the local college. He worships Mickey Mantle, and even writes letters to the baseball legend, which he will never send. Some of these notes relate to the legendary ballplayer’s career but others express Marty’s anxiety as he sees FBI agents parked on his street night and day because his parents are suspected of being communists. Marty is also waiting for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Jewish leftists like his parents, to be executed in Sing-Sing. Lois Ruby’s engrossing novel for middle-grade readers captures a tenuous moment in American history, when xenophobia and anti-intellectualism, heated in the cauldron of the Cold War, threatened democracy itself.
Red Menace is peopled with unforgettable characters who are more than just clichéd symbols of the era. The Rafners are identifiable Jewish leftists at a time when politically and socially progressive causes were part of the fabric of American Judaism. Marty’s father, Irwin, is an anthropologist, a discipline viewed with disdain by Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy and his red-baiting followers were determined to expose the communists whom they were convinced lurked everywhere in America. Marty’s mother, Rosalie, is a poet and activist who frequently cites both the Torah and the Constitution while condemning any compromise of freedom of speech and political association, including signing the loyalty oath which the university required of faculty members. Ultimately, she is subpoenaed by the Internal Security Sub-Committee of the Senate where she will be interrogated about her links to “subversive” organizations. Ruby engages readers with a suspenseful subplot about missing documents needed for Rosalie’s testimony.
At the center of the novel is Marty’s emotional and moral confusion. The ideals of American freedom that he learned about in school are undermined by the grim reality of his family’s surveillance by their own government. As the weeks pass, and all efforts to save the Rosenbergs from execution fail, he recognizes that their soon-to-be orphaned sons are “just a regular Jewish family like us.” Even Marty’s bar mitzvah lessons become a vehicle for voicing his frustration as he discusses with his teacher the number of righteous people God would require in order to save the world from the climate of terror which has consumed his own life. Throughout the book, references to popular culture of the 1950s reinforce the gap between the ideal and reality. Menus with Velveeta cheese, the advertising jingle for Brylcreem, and photo essays in Look Magazine testify to the contradictions of the time. Marty even clarifies a reference to McCarthy as the infamous Wisconsin senator, not the beloved ventriloquist. Marty’s compassion for his neighbor, Luke, a Korean War veteran suffering from neurological trauma, realistically introduces the reality of a proxy conflict which erupted between superpowers. Ruby avoids sentimentality in tracing Marty’s sometimes frustrating commitment to his friend as he struggles to find within the wounded man the person he was before experiencing combat. Ruby’s exceptional skills as a novelist allow her to portray the contradictions of Marty’s time with subtlety and insight.
Although there are some graphic references to the Rosenbergs’ execution, Red Menace is highly recommended with language suitable for middle-grade students.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.