The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke
Genre: Historical fiction, Fantasy, YA
“If the story was happy, you’d care less about that tiny little bit of freedom . . . We wouldn’t like the daylight if it wasn’t for the night. We wouldn’t notice the stars if not for the endless dark of night. All the story, like you said? That’s the important part. The sad parts are all about surviving. We are a people that survives. We endure. We will endure this too.”
I’m torn about this book. Really and truly torn. On one hand, the subject matter, the concept, the ideas behind this book are fascinating and intensely moving. I have been somewhat of an amateur WWII buff with a focus on Germany (specifically children in Germany) for more than six years now, and have cultivated a deep understanding of the weight of recent German history through interviews with those who lived it, as well as my own experience studying in Berlin, so I loved the subject matter of this book. And adding in magical elements as well? Heck yes! On the other hand, there were glaring problems in the structure, characterization, and plot elements that made exploring these themes problematic.
Ellie Baum is a 16-year-old American high school student visiting modern Berlin when she is swept into 1988 East Berlin by a stray red balloon. She is picked up by a group of dissidents who use magical means to transport Stasi victims safely across the wall. But Ellie hasn’t just been transported across distance, she has also been transported across time. As Ellie and her caretakers delve into the mystery of her appearance, they begin to uncover a dark plot within their own ranks, and Ellie must come face to face with not only German history, but with her family’s as well.
I have deep family roots in Germany. My German grandmother lived through WWII before immigrating to the US in the ’50’s and in recent years I have taken the time to hear and understand her story. In the winter of 2013, I studied abroad in Berlin, Germany and this city with an unimaginably heavy history has come to weigh forever on my heart. How do you stand in the street besides the dual ghosts of Nazism and the Berlin Wall and not feel suffocated by the weight of it all? How does a country reconcile and heal from a century of darkness? If you could go back and change things, would you? Locke wrestles with these intensely poignant questions in The Girl with the Red Balloon as Ellie comes face to face with history.
But I think that is precisely where the book fell short. Ellie, as a character, is not very compelling. She reads as a stereotypical high school student in a way that is more frustrating than relatable. Though Kai recounts numerous times how marvelous and brave she is, the reader rarely encounters a time when she demonstrates it. There is too much time spent telling how the reader should feel about the characters and not enough time showing those strengths. I do think that the point of Ellie’s character growth was that she learns bravery and to stand up to things she thinks is wrong, but the emphasis was all wrong. Ellie does begin by falling to pieces numerous times, but she is also described as brave from the beginning, so I was confused as to what she was supposed to be. And her chemistry with Kai was almost non-existent. It was a classic case of “you woman, me man, we must fall in love” which was rather disappointing.
What I wanted to see more of was what went into getting people across the wall. I felt that we saw so little of East Germany and what it was truly like–the constant psychological stress of neighbors and family members reporting you, the sudden imprisonment of loved ones for no reason, the facades that had to be kept up to keep the Stasi off your back, etc. I wanted to hear those stories. I wanted to understand why the balloons were so important, why East Germany was a place people were willing to risk their lives to flee. Yet, so little time was spent on such a fascinating concept, and far too much time was spent following . . . Ellie, who was holed up in a house for most of the book. And then spends a lot of time mooning over Kai.
The most compelling moments came from Benno, a Jewish boy swept into the horrors of the Holocaust. Our flashes back to his story are haunting, lyrical, and intensely emotional. I could believe in the magic of the red balloon in the midst of the horror, could resonate with Benno’s choices and the way he wrestled with his faith in the face of so much evil. His story, and the resonance of history surrounding the holocaust, were handled in a respectful manner, paying homage to those who lived through such a grizzly injustice.
But in comparison Ellie seems . . blank. I think Benno’s story held the right balance of history and magic. There is a mystery to the balloons that is lost in 1988. Too much is explained about the magic, and it is no longer compelling. In 1988 the focus is not on Germany, but on Ellie and Kai who are not German. And maybe that is why this segment of the book fell short for me–because Ellie cannot understand what it is like to be German in East Germany, or to be German and a Jew during the Third Reich. To have love for your country, and yet to have that country despise you. Benno understands that. Mitzi understands that. Kai understand it to a degree, but not in the context of Germany. We get hints of it from them, but I wish it could have been more focused.
Understanding the juxtaposition of the Third Reich and the immediate division into east and west is essential to understanding German history. But you cannot compare the regimes and you cannot cast blame on East Germans for “not standing up to the government.” East Germany and its rise is so incredibly complicated, that comparing these evils is like comparing apples and oranges. Germany was annihilated by the Russians at the end of WWII, soldiers committing atrocities against the German people in an unparalleled rampage of revenge. Millions of German women were raped. Millions of people were burned out of their homes. The Russians swept in and annihilated, leaving no possible way to resist their new puppet state. Sometimes things don’t just happen because people are too afraid to stand up–things happen because people have no other choice.
Bravery and what it means to do the right thing in the face of history is so much more complicated than most of us can imagine. When Ellie blames Mitzi for not standing up to the East German regime, Mitzi immediately puts Ellie in her place: “I believe that on the other side of this, I’ll be here to make my country a better place, a place where anyone can be anything. You can be self-righteous some other time, Ellie Baum, but not to me. Not right now. I’ll never compare our suffering now to the Holocaust, but I’m not my grandparents.” I agree with Locke that the sins of their ancestors should not be pinned on the current German people, however, Germany as a country has done a remarkable job of memorializing and apologizing for what did happen. These horrors cannot and should not be forgotten and the question that needs to be asked is how can we, as the human race, keep such an atrocity from happening again.
One of the most problematic moments for me was the ending. I won’t spoil it, but the motivation driving the “bad guy” made me pause and go “seriously?” It felt like such a cop-out. I could rant about this in a lot more detail about why this was so problematic, but that would be giving too much away.
I want to thank Netgalley and Albert Whitman and Co. for kindly sending me this ARC e-book. This was my first ARC and I am honored to have been able to read and review this book. There were many moments that were truly beautiful, thoughtful, and evocative. But there were also moments that read like stereotypical YA, when I thought this book could have been so much more than that. I appreciate that Locke took on something so fraught with weight and darkness and the complexity of the human psyche, and I wish that more YA authors would wrestle with such poignant history.