A dauntless 11-year-old boy confronts a possible Russian spy in this Cold-War-era thriller.
Spy Runner by Eugene Yelchin. Henry Holt (Godwin Books), 2019, 343 pages
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 12-15, especially boys
It’s 1953 and there’s a war on in Korea, but Jake McCauley’s dad has been missing from the earlier war—the one against the Nazis—from before Jake can remember him. “MIA” means he may still be alive—possibly in Russia, where the Commies could be torturing him or keeping him in a slave-labor camp. Communism is the enemy now. Jake’s sixth-grade class knows all about it, especially when patriots like Major Armbruster, father of Jake’s best friend Duane, stride into the classroom to warn them about this threat to the American way of life. So when Jake’s mom takes in a boarder into their house (“We need the money,” she says), Jake is shocked to learn the guy is a Russian! Further suspicious behavior indicates he may even be a spy.
Though it might sound like a Cold War spoof, where everyone turns out to be harmless, it’s no spoiler to say that Spy Runner is hardcore intrigue for the middle-grade adventure lover. It moves so fast, character development doesn’t stand a chance–secondary characters are drawn with very broad strokes. But once the action gets underway most readers will barely notice. The author, whose Breaking Stalin’s Nose and Arcady’s Goal pulled no punches about life in Stalinist Russia, here takes the opportunity to warn Americans about our government’s red-baiting, that short-circuited Constitutional protections and due process. He’s not wrong: though never mentioned in the narrative, the McCarthy hearings were at their height during this period. At the same time, Communism was no imaginary threat to “the American way of life”; the bad guys were really bad. It’s a bit far-fetched to throw a kid into the intrigue, but besides a thrilling narrative, Spy Runner provides useful background on the Cold War for middle graders and young teens.
Cautions: Language (misuse of God’s name 2 times, one “hell” and one “damn”); some violence and intense scenes
Overall rating: 3.75 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 3.5
- Artistic value: 4