Red Menace and the Historical Fiction Sweet Spot

by Amy Fitzgerald, Editorial Director, Carolrhoda Books

I love historical fiction. For a long time, though, I half-consciously regarded anything that was in the past but still within “living memory” as a sort of dead zone between history and the present.

I knew hypothetically that at least parts of those decades were eventful and compelling and still relevant to our current era, but manuscripts I read often felt like one long “Back in my day…” We played these records, we ate this brand of fake cheese, we wore these clothes that have inexplicably come back now, yeah yeah yeah. I look for historical fiction that resonates with the present on more than a fashion level—making me feel simultaneously transported to foreign territory and more deeply connected to the problems, questions, and feelings of my own time. Mere factual accuracy won’t get me to that sweet spot.

Then I read the manuscript for Red Menace by Lois Ruby. Though it’s full of immersive details about everyday life in the 1950s, it also has a sense of immediacy. Thirteen-year-old Marty’s family is being watched by the FBI. (I’ll admit, my first reaction to this as an editor was “COOL.”) His parents, both Jewish professors, are suspected of communist sympathies, and at the height of Senator Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, this can have dire consequences. While the Feds track their every move, Marty’s parents are pressured to sign a loyalty oath to the United States. When his mom refuses out of principle, she loses her job. And worse could follow: “Reds” can face arrest, prison, and even deportation if they were born outside the U.S.—as Marty’s mom was. Neighbors leave threatening messages. Marty’s best friend ditches him. While Marty’s mom insists on her right to patriotic dissent—to honoring the principles of democracy, rather than the blind nationalism McCarthy promotes—Marty waffles between fear of what will happen to their family and pride in her convictions.

So yeah. That resonated.

Good historical fiction doesn’t stretch to make us see parallels with the present. It doesn’t need to spell out why what happens to Marty matters to a modern kid. It sucks the reader in with the hallmarks of any good story: high stakes, suspense, relationships you care about, a buoyant sense of humor that carries you through the darkest moments. And when it’s over, it leaves you with feelings. Feelings not just about 1953 and Joseph McCarthy and fictional Marty Rafner, but about your own time and place and life.

I think about Marty a lot. I always say that the characters in the books I edit aren’t meant to be role models, but if I had to pick a thirteen-year-old role model, I might pick Marty. For one thing, he’s very funny. He also thinks for himself and tries to do what’s right. That’s more than a lot of adults manage. But I don’t think young readers would choose Marty as a role model; I think they’d choose him as a friend. And that’s the greatest measure of success in historical fiction—in any fiction: meeting a character who feels real, a character you feel lucky to know.

P.S. – There’s a trailer for this book!

More posts by Amy.

p.s. – a version of this post is now available on our podcast!

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