Throughout the history of humankind, The Wall has most often been a symbol of alienation and separation, of hostility and rage, of the stubborn and destructive refusal to recognize the oneness of our race. L.M. Elliot’s latest young adult historical novel, “Walls,” deftly deals with the story of one twentieth century wall whose function, whose purpose, was to ensure that those negative and cruel human characteristics would be clearly demonstrated: the Berlin Wall was erected in August of 1961 for the primary purpose of keeping the virtually imprisoned residents of East Berlin from escaping to freedom in the West — an escape attempted by thousands and achieved at great risk by only a lucky few.
The novel’s protagonist, Drew McMahon, is a teen-aged military “brat” whose family is always on the move in order to stay with Drew’s dad, a classic career military man who has been assigned to duty in West Berlin, an isle of freedom amidst a sea of communist horrors, the home of the East German autocracy governed by a rigid and unforgiving bureaucracy managed by the Soviet Union.
Drew’s mom has a close relative who lives in East Berlin, and in 1960, as the Cold War rages, the two women are allowed to visit and to move between free West Berlin and Communist East Berlin — only because of Drew’s family’s military standing. The relative has a son named Matthias, who has been thoroughly grounded in the severe anti-American philosophy and rules promulgated and propagated by his East German government. In this setting, the black cloud of potential warfare hangs over the proceedings as a constant, frightening threat. But Drew and Matthias slowly warm to each other and become friends, much to the displeasure of the East German government, the military, and the dreaded Stasi, the secret police.
Author Elliot’s format in this exciting and suspenseful novel is one she had used effectively in her previous piece, “Suspect Red.” Each chapter covers one month in the lives of the characters, and a captioned series of photographs precedes each of the chapters. The photos depict the cultural and political events and characteristics of the 1960s world, particularly the American cultural universe — JFK, rock ‘n’ roll, teen fads, clothing styles, and a gradual shift to the left in political matters, as well as the rather innocent rebelliousness of youth. All of that universe is contrasted with the rigidity of life in Communist countries in general and East Germany and East Berlin in particular.
Through the course of the novel, Drew and Matthias face mounting dangers and suspicions emanating from the Communist authorities. Elliot effectively builds the suspense as the two boys are increasingly victimized by Stasi spying tactics, frightening military watchfulness, and the threat of overt actions meant to separate and ultimately punish them because of their dangerous friendship. And the concluding episode is downright scary: the Wall has just been built; everyone must stay in place as Drew and Matthias are stuck in East Berlin; escape is not possible. Or is it?
The characters of Drew and Matthias are brilliantly drawn to represent the clash of cultures that arises when opposing political philosophies collide. But more importantly, they represent the friendship and understanding that can result if only people can begin to recognize that the powers of compassion, reason — and love for the “other” — become the common goal of those who might at first consider themselves enemies. And, with courage and patience, those “best of enemies” can bring down even the cruelest of walls.
Review by Jack Kramer. Thank you to the author for a review copy of the book. You may be interested in reading Jack’s reviews of “Suspect Red” and “Hamilton and Peggy,” also by L. M. Elliot.