The Spy with the Red Balloon

  • Review
By – December 3, 2018

This ambi­tious mag­i­cal real­ist nov­el, the sec­ond in the Bal­loon­mak­ers series, uses the back­drop of World War II to explore intense­ly dif­fi­cult issues: moral choic­es with­in a just war, Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, and the impact of fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships on our lives. Set dur­ing the time of the top-secret Man­hat­tan Project, the nov­el chron­i­cles the lives of Wolf and Ilse Klein, Jew­ish sib­lings tak­en by the Unit­ed States gov­ern­ment from their home in New York in 1943 in order to enlist their tal­ents with mag­ic in ser­vice of the war effort.

Ilse and Wolf are intel­lec­tu­al­ly gift­ed, intro­spec­tive, and some­what rebel­lious. They use bal­loons for trans­porta­tion, and human blood as a vehi­cle for mag­ic equa­tions in order to advance atom­ic research, and thus pre­vent Nazis from using the bomb toward their goal of anni­hi­la­tion. Wolf is sent to Europe, while Ilse works with oth­er young women at the Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee nuclear facil­i­ties. At times the sto­ry seems almost over­whelmed by its own weight, as Locke has each pro­tag­o­nist, in alter­nat­ing chap­ters, describe in chill­ing detail the vio­lence and betray­al that takes over their lives. There are typ­i­cal ele­ments of a thriller, as well as philo­soph­i­cal dis­cus­sions about whether the use of nuclear weapons is ever justified.

Both Klein sib­lings are gay. While it would be easy to assume that this choice rep­re­sents a check­ing of box­es to high­light the story’s con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance, Locke suc­ceeds in draw­ing par­al­lels between the secre­cy that the sib­lings’ war work requires and their painful need to con­ceal their own inner lives.

One of Ilse’s asso­ciates, Stel­la, a young black woman, is forced to live sep­a­rate­ly in Oak Ridge’s seg­re­gat­ed hous­ing. Locke notes the real­i­ty of this injus­tice in her author’s note. Although the nov­el does not explore this ele­ment as a major theme, Stel­la is a believ­able char­ac­ter and pro­vides some insight into the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of Amer­i­cans of col­or dur­ing World War II.

The nov­el suf­fers from some anachro­nisms. The term African Amer­i­can,” for exam­ple, was not gen­er­al­ly used in 1943. Oth­er expres­sions such as genius” as an adjec­tive, and Lud­dite” to crit­i­cize an oppo­nent of tech­nol­o­gy, also entered com­mon speech much lat­er than the era in which the book is set. These choic­es cer­tain­ly do not com­pro­mise the book’s mes­sage; they may even make it more acces­si­ble to con­tem­po­rary read­ers. How­ev­er, when a sto­ry is root­ed in real events — even if it is in the fan­ta­sy genre — it’s impor­tant to be accu­rate. Facts and words mat­ter. These remain minor quib­bles about a seri­ous and pas­sion­ate explo­ration of a ter­ri­ble time in his­to­ry, and a vul­ner­a­ble time in a young adult’s development.

Final­ly, The Spy with the Red Bal­loon deserves com­men­da­tion for its focus on Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Wolf and Ilse are not par­tic­u­lar­ly reli­gious­ly obser­vant, but as Jews they are bit­ter­ly aware of their threat­ened safe­ty, and the pre­car­i­ous sur­vival of the Jew­ish peo­ple as a whole. The sib­lings con­vey loy­al­ty and attach­ment to their Jew­ish her­itage; this is espe­cial­ly evi­dent in Wolf’s close friend­ship with Lily, a young Jew­ish wid­ow who becomes his com­rade in their fight against the Nazis.

The words of the rab­bi at the Rosh Hashanah ser­vice that Ilse attends at Oak Ridge will like­ly res­onate with read­ers today: We are here. We are alive. We are resilient…We are grieving.”

The Spy with the Red Bal­loon is rec­om­mend­ed for read­ers 14 and old­er. Younger read­ers may ben­e­fit from read­ing the author’s note, includ­ed at the end of the book, before read­ing the nov­el, as it pro­vides some his­tor­i­cal background.

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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