To Catch a Traitor

  • Review
By – December 10, 2018

In this pre­quel to her Sins of a Spy series, D. B. Shus­ter deft­ly por­trays Sovi­et Jews’ col­lec­tive state of mind dur­ing the 1980s. Sovi­et Jews con­tin­ue to face anti-Semi­tism; they are con­fined to low-pay­ing work and are used as con­ve­nient scape­goats for oth­ers’ dis­ap­point­ments. Laws don’t pro­tect them. The KGB shad­ows them relent­less­ly, espe­cial­ly those who, for what­ev­er rea­son, are felt to be a dan­ger to the Sovi­et sys­tem. These con­di­tions are mag­ni­fied by the desire of many to emi­grate either to Israel or the Unit­ed States. Their goal of escape makes them traitors.

The nov­el cen­ters on the Reit­man fam­i­ly — espe­cial­ly on clever, cur­va­ceous Sofia, who has ded­i­cat­ed her life and her tal­ents to achiev­ing Jew­ish free­dom from Sovi­et oppres­sion. Though KGB agents are every­where, she has found sat­is­fac­tion in risk-tak­ing and has become a spy, trained to pho­to­graph secret Sovi­et doc­u­ments that can be used to shape world opin­ion and mod­i­fy Sovi­et pol­i­cy. Her han­dler, Paul, is a CIA agent.

When Sofi­a’s hus­band, Mendel, is released ear­ly from his five-year prison sen­tence for teach­ing Hebrew, he is a great­ly altered ver­sion of the man Sofia mar­ried. It is not clear if his ear­ly release involved a deal with his jail­ers. Mendel won’t talk about it, and it seems that the for­mer inti­ma­cy between them can­not be restored. He has learned to be sus­pi­cious, even of his wife.

The nov­el is pop­u­lat­ed by the extend­ed fam­i­ly, an inter­est­ing col­lec­tion of char­ac­ters rep­re­sent­ing sev­er­al gen­er­a­tions. Most notable are Vera, Sofia’s younger sis­ter, who is tor­ment­ed by her class­mates for being Jew­ish; and Edik, Sofia’s cousin, who helps Sofia with her black mar­ket fundrais­ing oper­a­tion for Jew­ish freedom.

Mem­bers of the KGB hier­ar­chy form anoth­er cast of char­ac­ters. Note­wor­thy here is Artur, an agent on the fast track who is enthralled by Sofia’s beau­ty and who is assigned to fake a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, sweep Sofia off her feet, and exploit the rela­tion­ship to dis­cov­er if she should be arrest­ed — or worse.

The nov­el brims with brava­do, fear, jeal­ousy, sym­pa­thy, chi­canery, cru­el­ty, and nobil­i­ty. Shus­ter makes the emo­tion­al life of her major char­ac­ters come ful­ly alive while she con­tin­ues to ratch­et up the sus­pense — all of this set against a vivid ren­der­ing of Moscow’s mate­r­i­al and polit­i­cal culture.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions