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Children's Literacy Round-Up: Bonus Edition

White Sands, Red Menace: Ellen Klages

Book: White Sands, Red Menace
Author: Ellen Klages
Pages: 352
Age Range: 10 and up

White Sands, Red MenaceWhite Sands, Red Menace by Ellen Klages is the sequel to the 2007 Scott O'Dell Award winner The Green Glass Sea. The first book was set in the Los Alamos compound during World War II, featuring the children of the scientists working on the atomic bomb. In this sequel, set during 1946 and 1947, Dewey Kerrigan and the Gordon family are living in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Phil Gordon is working on rocket research at the nearby White Sands Proving Grounds, while his wife Terry stays home and tries, through letters and fliers, to limit the use of the atomic bomb by government. Terry is horrified by the human cost of the work that she and her husband and Dewey's father did during the war, and wants to revert control of the bombs to scientists. She also clearly has a difficult time adjusting to life as a housewife (due to the limited options in Alamogordo), after the camaraderie of being on the scientific research team during the war.

White Sands, Red Menace finds Suze Gordon befriending a local girl named Ynez Esquero. Ynez teaches Suze how to make tamales and speak Spanish, even as Suze starts manifesting her mother's views against injustice. Dewey struggles with being a budding scientist in a school system that forbids girls to take shop, but she befriends the son of an appliance repairman, and studies Popular Mechanics. Suze and Dewey work together to construct an engineering and artistic marvel in their attic. They also fight over Dewey's place in the Gordon family, and worry about the growing rift between the Gordon parents. There is a quite a bit of conflict, although the plot is more episodic than linear.

White Sands, Red Menace is a window into a time period that one doesn't hear much about. Certain supplies are still scarce because of the war, everything "atomic" is exciting, the space program is just beginning to capture the public's interest, black kids go to their own school, and televisions are just starting to be available (though reception hasn't reached New Mexico yet). I personally found the historical detail a tad overdone at times, as when Terry Gordon pooh poohs the idea of microwave ovens. However, I do think that Klages captures the mood of the time, the tensions with German scientists, the excitement around the idea of progress, and the push for stability and keeping people (women, immigrants, and anyone not white) in their place. These are touched on more lightly, and are, I think, the stronger for that restraint. Klages is also not afraid to show a pregnant woman who drinks and smokes, as was typical at the time, although this portrayal is bound to offend modern sensibilities.

But ultimately, what makes the book work, and what will keep young modern-day readers turning the pages, is that Dewey and Suze are engaging, multi-faceted characters, with unique strengths, and clear vulnerabilities. The perspective shifts between the two girls are handled seamlessly, and allow the reader to see each girl more clearly than would be possible with a single viewpoint. We see them each from inside and out.

Klages' writing is also beautiful, descriptive without being dense, and sometimes conveying irony in a deadpan manner. For example:

"Life was pretty swell. She was thirteen -- and a half -- just an ordinary teenage girl sitting in an ordinary American drugstore. She smiled as she sipped her chocolate malt, then opened Fundamentals of Mechanical Physics and began to read."  (Page 24, ARC)

Sometimes the book tugs at the reader's heartstrings, but again, Klages maintains a light hand. For example:

"Dewey felt like she had almost walked off the end of a plank, almost fallen, like in a Laurel and Hardy movie. But she had survived, because another plank, the Gordons, had swung by just in the nick of time, and become her family." (Page 7, ARC)

And sometimes the writing is just beautiful:

"Her father turned left on the highway, one hand on the wheel, one hand holding his cone. After they passed the city limits, they were the only car on the road. They sky was a hundred shades of blue, studded with clouds that hung miles above the desert floor, their tops glowing a warm, luminous peach, like whipped cream lit from within." (Page 73, ARC)

This last passage is, of course, from the viewpoint of the artistic Suze.

White Sands, Red Menace doesn't have quite the same hook as The Green Glass Sea, in terms of setting. It's a bit quieter of a book than the first, more focused on family dynamics. But the writing itself is, if anything, stronger. For fans of the first book, the chance to find out what happened next to Suze and Dewey and Terry will be irresistible. As will, for historical fiction fans of all ages, the chance to read about 1946 New Mexico and the White Sands Proving Grounds. Don't miss it!

Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Publication Date: October 2, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the ARC, and should be compared with the final, finished title.
Other Blog Reviews: Oops...Wrong Cookie, Bookshelves of Doom
Author Interviews: Mrs. Magoo Reads, The Fix

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.