Red Men­ace

  • Review
By – January 14, 2020

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 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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