The Girl with the Red Balloon, by Katherine Locke, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Girl with the Red Balloon, by Katherine Locke (Albert Whitman 2017), is top notch YA time travel goodness! It's the story of a modern American girl, Ellie Baum, granddaughter of a Jewish Holocaust survivor, is visiting Berlin on a school trip.  When a red balloon drifts by, she grabs it....and finds herself in 1988, still in Berlin, but such a different place (there's still a year to go before the wall comes down). The red balloon was not supposed to have found Ellie.  It was supposed to magically carry an East Berliner in particular danger to the west.  But instead of a successful mission accomplished, the runners for the magical balloon operation that night now have Ellie on their hands.

Kai and Mitzi, the runners, don't know what to make of Ellie, but shelter her in their hideaway house.  Her bad German and lack of identity papers and working knowledge of "how not to get arrested by the Stazi" make her a danger to herself and to them, and they are not safe even at the best of times (as well as actively working against the state, Kai is Romani, and dark-skinned, and Mitzi is gay).  The balloon makers, part of a world-wide organization of magical rescuers who bespell each balloon for its intended passenger, don't know what to make of her either.  All are in agreement that Ellie needs to go home.  But how? And why did this happen to her?

 Kai and Ellie don't wait passively for the Balloon Makers to provide answers, but instead start investigate the problem for themselves.  Appallingly, the dead bodies of other time travelers start appearing on the streets of East Berlin--clearly there is some larger wrongness happening than just Ellie's trip from the future.  Why, though, did she live and the others not?

The answer lies further in the past.  Chapters of Ellie's story are interspersed throughout with that of her grandfather, who escaped as a teenager from Chelmno, a concentration camp in Poland, in 1942, with the help of his own red balloon.  (this isn't a spoiler; we know about his balloon almost immediately because he's told Ellie about it many times).

And so the mystery unravels, or more accurately tightens and becomes more dangerous, and as Ellie and Kai spend more time together, attraction, impossible, forbidden, and powerful, builds between them.

So not a comfort read, but a gripping one that I highly recommend.  Ellie couldn't Do much to solve her problems in her position as illegal foreigner in East Berlin, but that didn't make her a passive heroine needing rescue.  She was able, for instance, to stay sane which is saying a lot in her cirumstances!  And she was also able to learn to make little flying paper birds, which weren't much use, but which were intriguing and charming....Basically, she provided a very good perspective to share while visiting 1988 East Berlin, and that's one of the things that makes a time travel story work for me.

Although the particular plot threads are for the most part resolved, there's plenty of room for more, and indeed it is the first of a planned series.  So I recommend it lots (the only down side is that you might have the song 99 Luftballons going through your head over and over and over for the next week....)   Kirkus agrees with me (good job, Kirkus!)-- "An absorbing blend of historical fiction, mystery, and magical realism."

1 comment:

  1. I really liked this book so much! I thought it was tremendous how the different timelines meshed together at the end, and it was fantastic to see historical fiction set in East Berlin. Like, I can count on the fingers of one hand how many books I've read about that time period, let alone fantasy ones. So cool, and I can't wait for whatever Katherine Locke will do next.


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