L.M. Elliott’s riveting Young Adult historical novel “Suspect Red” takes us on a rough ride through one thicket-filled thorny year in the life of early-adolescent Richard Bradley. He is a thirteen-year-old Washington D.C. resident circa 1953-54. And he is faced with the dilemmas and demons that would haunt any teen-ager whose father, whom he idolizes, is an FBI agent suffering from severe PTSD (making him, in those days, a “psycho”), and who, worse yet, works directly under J. Edgar Hoover during those dangerous and desperate months of June, 1953 to June, 1954: The Cold War rages.
The entire country suffers the ravages of virulent anti-communist fever. Paranoia. Dread. Dire fears of nuclear destruction. Every next-door neighbor perhaps a commie spy. Every immigrant a likely suspect. Every person to the political left of Senator Joseph McCarthy almost surely a communist dupe or an active and conscious agent of the Party, part and parcel of the international conspiracy to destroy democracy in general and the U.S. in particular.
This is Richard’s life in Washington, D.C., 1953. As the plot unfolds, Richard, a nerd before that word existed, is scorned by his classmates, who cannot stand or understand him, his imagination, his creativity, his curiosity. He is different. The “other.” But he soon befriends a new neighbor, a worldly and worldly-wise young man his own age, named — Vladimir.
That’s Vladimir, spelled T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
Vlad’s dad has personal connections with people from the U.S. State Department, the U.N., and the government of newly-communist Czechoslovakia — three nests of dangerous diversity. And his mom is an artist whose friends include other artists, playwrights, poets, musicians — almost all of them real left-wing radical extremists.
So as Richard and Vlad explore the wonders of New York City and the political world of Washington, Richard eventually painfully concludes that Vlad’s family must somehow be involved in the communist conspiracy to destroy America. Ergo the terrible dilemma: he must cultivate his already deep friendship with his fascinating new friend; but he must inform his G-man father of the dangers that his friend’s family potentially pose to the health of his country. He must, he feels, betray Vlad and his family; so utilizing Richard’s information, his father takes this unique opportunity to impress Hoover by leading the investigation into the activities of Vlad’s family. Richard’s fateful decision will not and cannot lead to a happy ending.
Author Elliott’s technique and methodology are superbly appropriate. She begins each chapter — each month — with a detailed description of actual events from that month: the rise of McCarthy and McCarthyism; examples of the cruelty, hypocrisy, and power of J. Edgar Hoover; the persecutions of writers, performers, and artists; the shock of the Soviets’ first successful H-bomb test. And seamlessly winding through the novel are the associated stories of real people who become important novel characters — Hoover, McCarthy, Paul and Jane Bowles, Nixon, LBJ, and even that most celebrated “Inquiring Camera Girl,” the newly married Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.
Lessons for all of us — particularly in this case young readers — abound: the necessary realization of the horrors of war; of the use of fear tactics to motivate destructive behaviors; of the all-too-tempting trap of fighting tyranny with tyranny; of the tragically unfortunate effects of herd mentality — ethno-tribal hatreds, bigotry, stereotyping, violent retribution for perceived wrongs, fascism; and perhaps most significantly of all, the incredibly difficult task of balancing the virtues of liberty on the one hand with the desire for security on the other.
We have done an awful job of learning those lessons. And so arises the sad implied question: can we really hope to “make America great again” by returning to the practices and beliefs and traditions of the “fabulous fifties”?
Before answering that question, consider the lessons of “Suspect Red.” (JK)
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Disney-Hyperion Books, the publisher, for review purposes.