Remembering the Cold War

July 1, 2022 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

As I write this, Ukraine remains under siege. News programs feature a nightly parade of diplomats, retired generals, and political historians speculating about a new global world order, comparing and contrasting today’s state of affairs with the Cold War period.  For young people (ages 10-14) curious about the Cold War, three outstanding recent books look back at that era.

Fallout: Spies, Superbombs, and the Ultimate Cold War Showdown 

This superb non-fiction thriller by Steve Sheinkin covers the tense political and nuclear arms competition between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II, escalating into the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

In Fallout’s cinematic opening scene, a Brooklyn paperboy accidentally drops a handful of coins – a generous tip from a customer – and discovers that one of the nickels is hollow and contains an encrypted message. FBI experts identify the nickel as an ingenious piece of Soviet spycraft. In time, they locate and arrest the nickel’s clever creator, Soviet agent Rudolf Abel. Five years later, the United States returns Abel to the Soviets in exchange for American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union while on a spying mission.

Some of the book’s most riveting action takes place in the divided city of Berlin. When the Berlin Wall went up, Harry Seidel, a champion East German cyclist, escaped to West Berlin, and then returned repeatedly, at great peril, to help East Berliners escape to the West.

The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

Eugene Yelchin’s childhood in Leningrad during the Cold War was bleak, but his memoir of that time is a pure delight. The humorous text and the author’s charming illustrations illuminate a dark Soviet world. Yelchin’s Jewish family lives in a tiny room in a communal apartment that also houses a nasty, anti-Semitic KGB spy. While Yelchin’s older brother, Victor, sleeps on three chairs roped together, Yelchin (called Yevgeny) has a cozier sleeping space – under Grandma’s dining table, covered by an oversized tablecloth that reaches the floor. In this snug, private den, Yevgeny secretly draws on the underside of the table every night.

Yevgeny’s parents impress on their sons that the way to succeed in Soviet society is to develop exceptional talent in a valued endeavor. Fortunately, Victor is a gifted figure skater, but Yevgeny shows no unusual aptitude for sports, chess, or anything else, and his parents worry about him. To please his mother, who works at a famous ballet school, Yevgeny pretends to be interested in studying ballet, and she secures him an audition. Predictably, this path proves comically unproductive. But then, Yevgeny’s parents make a surprising discovery and begin to envision an alternative path to success for him.

Red Menace

This engrossing novel by Lois Ruby centers on a Jewish family living in a Kansas college town in 1953.  Irwin and Rosalie Rafner are professors. Their 13-year-old son, Marty, is obsessed with baseball star Mickey Mantle and, increasingly, with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who are awaiting execution for conspiring to commit espionage for the Soviet Union.

The fate of the Rosenbergs and their soon-to-be-orphaned sons makes Marty anxious about his own family. His left-leaning parents are torn over whether to sign a loyalty oath, newly required of college faculty. The FBI is surveilling their house, suspicious that the Rafners are communist sympathizers. After Rosalie refuses to sign the oath, she is interrogated by a Senate subcommittee about her membership in ​“sub­ver­sive” orga­ni­za­tions. Worse still, Rosalie’s American citizenship is challenged, and she risks deportation to Poland. Can Marty find the missing proof of Rosalie’s citizenship?