Red Menace

Written by Lois Ruby
Review by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

It’s 1953 in a college town in Kansas, and 13-year-old Marty Rafner and his parents are counting down the days until the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Marty’s parents, both professors, oppose Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare, and Marty (who met the Rosenbergs and their two sons some years earlier), fears he, too, will become an orphan at the hands of the U.S. government. Two FBI agents sit in their car across the street, surveilling his family and that of his next-door neighbor and friend, Amy Lynn. Marty used to play basketball and baseball with his best friend Connor, but the baseball coach has kicked Marty off the team, and Connor’s parents won’t let him play with Marty anymore. Then, after she refuses to sign a loyalty oath, Marty’s mother receives a letter. If she can’t produce her parents’ citizenship papers, the government will deport her to Poland.

Ruby captures the fear, isolation, and helplessness of people targeted because their beliefs are different from those in power. For most of the book, Marty is an observer as his life becomes more limited and perilous. But when he reaches out to another neighbor, a Korean War veteran suffering from PTSD, and decides to hunt down his mother’s citizenship papers, he becomes an active participant in his story and someone who can make a difference in his small way. Secondary characters are drawn with complexity and empathy, especially Connor and Luke, the troubled veteran. Letters Marty writes to Mickey Mantle help to set the novel in another era while its events, conflicts, and stakes resonate strongly in the present.