Monday, March 5, 2018

Suspect Red by L. M. Elliot

Set in Washington, D.C. during the Cold War, Suspect Red captures the paranoia and fear as politicans and the FBI are determined to hunt down potential Communists and subversives.

Fourteen-year-old Richard Bradley lives in a suburb of Washington with his nine-year-old sister Virginia (Ginny), his mother Abigail, and his father Don who is an FBI agent. Richard's father is a World War II veteran who served in the Air Corps as a rear gunner. Years later, he's still nervous around loud sounds and has trouble controlling his anger.

Richard will be starting high school and like any teen he's interested in reading books such as Robin Hood. However, everything and anything that even hints of socialism is purged. And this includes Robin Hood. He manages to read other banned books like Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and John Steinbecks Red Pony, both of which have authors who are considered "Red subversives".  Richard has also been reading Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, but it is hidden from his mother.

Their Washington neighbourhood has many important people including Vice-President Richard Nixon. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. In August, 1953, a new family, the Whites move into their neighborhood.  Richard and his mother take a meatloaf over as they welcome the Whites who are from Czechoslovakia. Teresa White tells Richard and his mother that they were lucky to escape Prague before the arrival of the Nazis and only because she had the good luck to be married to a member of the American diplomatic corps. They fled to London where they experienced the terror of the Blitz and then after the war travelled to New York. Teresa invites Richard to go upstairs to meet  her son Vladimir. As he passes through the house Richard cannot help but notice the unusual artwork and the amazing collection of books; The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Animal Farm by George Orwell and many others. As it turns out, Vladimir shares Richard's love of reading. However, Vladimir is much more cosmopolitan that Richard, having travelled more and having an interest in jazz.

In September of 1953 Richard and Vladimir who attend Wilson High School, take the city bus together and also eat lunch together. Richard has spent time showing Vladimir the sights of Washington, their favourite being the Museum of Natural History. Vladimir continues to lend Richard books, many of which are banned and he introduces him to the world of jazz including Thelonius Monk, trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Richard and his family attend McCarthy's wedding. The girl Richard's been crushing on since third grade, Dottie Anne Glover is also there but she's interested in Richard introducing her to his friend Vladimir. Angry at her father for not allowing her to join cheerleading, Dottie wants to go on a date with Vladimir who she believes is a "Red" as a way of revenge.

As his friendship with Vladimir continues to grow Richard's world is broadened by his experiences with the White family. He travels to New York where he is introduced to the artist and writer friends of Teresa - many of whom are considered questionable by McCarthy. Richard, although friends with Vladimir is also careful to note anything unusual. When Teresa is seen receiving a package from a strange man, Richard is both excited and worried. Based on the other things he's seen at the White home, he suspects Teresa might involved in something important and he decides to tell his father. But in doing so, Richard may be doing more harm than good, while betraying the only good friend he has.


In Suspect Red, Elliot tackles the 1950's, a difficult era to portray in historical fiction. Veterans had returned home, hoping to settle down to a life of peace but the world was anything but peaceful. America and the communist Soviet Union had emerged from the war as the world's two new super powers. Their military might depended on developing more sophisticated atomic weapons. To that end, America found itself in an arms race with the Soviet Union each trying to build bigger and more powerful bombs.In 1949, the Soviet Union successfully detonated an atomic bomb. Meanwhile Communism was spreading across the globe. Countries occupied by the Soviets at the end of the war, such as Poland, the eastern part of Germany, Yugoslavia, Romania and Albania saw Communist puppet regimes set up against the will of the people. Communism was also spreading in Asia - China had overthrown the Imperial dynasty and became Communist in 1949. Korea was now embroiled in war with Communists from Korea and China fighting to overthrow the U.S. backed government there. As a result, Americans saw communism as a real threat to their country, the world and their way of life.

The fear of communism in America really began after the Russian revolution of 1917 and the end of World War I. The war brought about great changes in class and social order as well as many attempts to establish the rights of workers. The early 1920's saw strikes for better wages and working conditions. In the 1930's Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies which aimed to help the unemployed, youth, elderly and poor were seen as socialist leaning. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed in 1938 to ferret out anyone suspected of subversive, communist actions.

In 1947, the Truman government sought to help foreign countries who fought communism through financial aid. Many companies, universities and institutions as well as local governments developed loyalty programs to ensure only loyal Americans were hired. It was at this time that many actors, directors and screenwriters were investigated and brought before HUAC. Soviet spies were discovered within the government and even a scientist from the Manhattan Project.  In 1950, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested for selling American information on the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. They were tried, convicted and executed in 1953.

Senator Joseph McCarthy
All of this helped set the stage for Senator Joseph McCarthy's crusade to root out any subversive, communist or anti-American activities. He was convinced that the U.S. State Department was rife with Communist sympathizers.  Academics, writers, actors, musicians and really anyone was at risk of being investigated. Once reported, they appeared before the committee where "evidence' was often flimsy at best and often rewritten to suit the charges. Often these people lost their jobs, and were black-listed, thus preventing them from being employed in their professions. Even Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Linus Pauling were investigated. People were careful who they associated with and which organizations they belonged to. People who had joined Communist organizations in their youth or who had been invited to attend Communist functions but who had no real affiliation were considered suspect. The fear of subversive Communist ideas led to widespread paranoia and the banning of books and types of art.

Elliot effectively captures the paranoia of the McCarthy era through the characters of Richard Bradley and his family. At the beginning of the novel, Richard is enjoying reading Robin Hood until his mother tells him he can't read it and takes it from him. She tells Richard that the local librarians have made a list of banned books and Robin Hood is on it. "Because Robin Hood takes from the rich to give to the poor...That's a Communist concept." 

Richard whose father is an FBI agent wants to believe his father is a great G-man (Government man) but he learns from his mother that his father botched a very important case - the Judith Coplon case. Coplon was suspected of spying for the Russians and was put under FBI surveillance. Richard's father was one of the FBI agents assigned to follow Coplon but lost her for twenty minutes when she was planning to meet her Russian contact. Coplon went free and the situation was an embarrassment for the FBI and Hoover. Now Richard is "searching for proof that Don really was as good a G-man as he'd always believed his dad to be."  This leads to Richard being on the look out for anything suspicious and that leads him to suspect his friend Vladimir's mother. Viewed through the lens of paranoia, the White family appears on the surface to Richard at least support subversive ideas.

Richard finds the White's have many books by authors he has never heard of like Truman Capote, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot. He finds a copy of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a Black author who portrays white people as racist. Vladimir's older sister, Natalia explains to Richard that a children's book, the winner of the 1952 Caledcott Medal for illustration is considered subversive because of one of its illustrations. She explains to Richard that this notion is ridiculous and that the illustrator's previous book, The Two Reds, is considered suspicious simply because of its title.  At her Christmas party, Teresa White expresses her disappointment at the State Department's decision to recall an exhibit of important American artists such as Georgia |O'Keefe and Edward Hopper from Czechoslovakia because it might be helping promote Communism.

On a visit to New York City with Vladimir and his family, watches Teresa meet a strange man and receive an envelope from him. She also meets Arthur Miller, the author of the play The Crucible, a controversial play whose theme of the Salem witch trials is a metaphor for the McCarthy hearings.

In the White home, Richard finds Czech newspapers, a map of Prague marked with red circles and arrows, a Life magazine with a picture of the AP bureau chief in Prague, William Oatis who was accused by the Czech government of spying for the US defaced with horns.

All of these little discoveries lead Richard to believe that the Whites might be involved in something sinister, so he reports everything to his father. However this leaves Richard feeling unsettled and guilty. He attempts to rationalize what he's done by telling himself that he has to be loyal to his dad first over his friend Vladimir and that "...he hadn't said anything bad about Vladimir. He'd simply passed on some interesting things he'd observed about people in Brooklyn Heights and Teresa's oddball friends." When he discovers that the White's home is being bugged, Richard realizes this has gone much farther than he anticipated. "Richard swallowed hard, fighting off vomit. He was weirdly elated and riddled with a horrible sense of responsibility at the same time. He knew there was something suspect abotu Teresa. But he liked her. And what had he done potentially to Natalia? To the brother who loved her so much, his best friend?"

The reality of what he's done sinks in when Richard learns from Vladimir what his mother has been doing all along - attempting to save the life of a cousin who has been sentenced to twenty years prison in Czechoslovakia on the testimony of William Oatis. However, the truth is too late for Vladimir and his family. Mr. White is suspended from his State Department job, pending a Loyalty Review Board hearing. He is considered a security risk because of Teresa who is friends with radical writers and artists. Although his suspension and review ends up not being due to what Richard told his father and what his father reported, Richard still feels deeply guilty for betraying his friend and his family. " was Richard's fault, for misinterpreting things, for making assumptions based on the bombast of powerful guys like McCarthy, for spreading gossip. For--how had Natalia put it?-- for not thinking for himself." 

Although his actions almost destroy his friendship with Richard the two boys do reconcile. But Vladimir has some advice for Richard, "It doesn't matter if you're liberal or conservative, man, just make your own decisions about what you believe." Vladimir also gives Richard a pin from Natalia with the reminder "that Robin Hood was his own man, with his own beliefs..." It is the quintessential lesson all teens must learn as they come of age as adults.

Writing a story set in the early 1950's was no doubt very challenging. Although told in second person, this novel is difficult to read when Richard oddly refers to his parents by their first names. However, Elliot does a great job in aiding her readers understanding of the 1950's era by including a great deal of historical information from this decade at the beginning of each chapter. This includes information numerous photographs on various topics and events related to the 1950s, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Korea War, the Soviet Union's hydrogen bomb test, Lucille Ball, Edward R. Murrow, and the McCarthy hearings. These detailed clips help to set the story in Suspect Red within the broader context of the times. Elliot also includes a detailed Afterword and Bibliography.

Overall, Suspect Red is good novel that explores the early Cold War in a way that will be appealing to younger readers, while informing them on this fascinating time in America.

Book Details:

Suspect Red by L.M. Elliot
New York: Disney Hyperion    2017
292 pp.

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