The Girl with the Red Balloon
by Katherine Locke
Young Adult/Magical Realism/Alternate History
I’ve actually had this out from the library for a while, but when discussing Summer Bird Blue with the YA_Pride Twitter Book Club, I learned the person behind the book club is none other than Katherine Locke, the author of this book! I was amused that I actually had her book beside me without knowing that, and pushed it up my TBR list. I’m glad I did, because the sequel, The Spy with the Red Balloon, just came out. And oh man, do I want to read that now! The Girl with the Red Balloon is also “The Big Library Read” for October 1-15th, which I didn’t realize. Happy little coincidences!
So the premise for this book is that Ellie Baum, Jewish schoolgirl on a trip to Germany, grabs a magic balloon and is transported back to East Berlin after WW II. I’m always a little cautious when time travel is involved. This is quite well done, however! Even the magicians are like “this shouldn’t be possible!” As a Jewish girl in possession of a magic balloon used to take escapees over the Berlin Wall, she’s immediately in great danger in East Berlin. Luckily she is spotted by one of the people responsible for the balloons. Somewhat unluckily, she’s soon drawn into a deadly plot to rewrite history and has to figure out who to trust.
I really enjoyed this book, especially the depictions of the wall. The East Berliners’ surprise when she tells them the other side is covered in graffiti and street art is not something I’d thought of. I’ve seen a section of the wall; there’s three at the Marine Corps base in California that my husband was stationed at early in his time in the Corps. There are pictures online, but after sifting through old photos, I don’t seem to have any of my own. (You could google “Berlin Wall Presidio Monterey” and find a ton.) I think I remember a no-photo policy on the base at the time. Regardless, I know what she means because I’ve seen it. Ever since actually seeing parts of the Berlin Wall, reading anything about it has felt just a little more real. That’s always the problem with things like the Wall that you have no personal connection to – obviously they’re real, but when the circumstances are so alien to our own way of life, it’s hard to really comprehend. Finding ways to personally connect – seeing parts of the Wall, talking to people who have personally experienced things you haven’t (if you have the opportunity, and if they’re willing to discuss it) is so important.
I have digressed. I’m curious to know more about the magic in the Balloonmakers’ world – in the book we only see a small slice of it being used under dire circumstances. I hope Locke explores it more in the sequel. I’ll find out as soon as the library sends the book my way! Plots like this can be interesting or very disappointing – if the main character finds a way home, she leaves behind the love interest. But if she stays with the love interest, she never gets to go home. Luckily, Locke is a wonderful writer, and I was mostly happy with the ending but it was definitely left with questions for the sequel to answer!
I know I haven’t revealed a whole lot about the plot, but this is a twisty book, and I can’t really say much without spoiling surprises. I’ll just say it’s a great book, I’m very glad I finally read it, and my library needs to hurry up with that sequel!
From the cover of The Girl with the Red Balloon:
This can’t be real, I thought. But I had the same feeling I had whenever Saba told me his stories: that somewhere, somehow, the impossible had happened.
Ever since she arrived in Germany on a school trip, Ellie Baum has felt the weight of history on her. After all, she’s the first one in her family to return since her grandfather’s miraculous escape from a death camp, and in Berlin, pieces of the past – World War II, the Cold War – are still visible decades later.
One day, visiting the Berlin Wall Memorial, she sees a stray balloon floating across the park, and she wanders away from the crowd to follow it. One moment she’s reaching out to grab it – the next, she’s yanked back through time to when the wall is still standing. It is 1988, and Ellie is in East Berlin.
Nobody knows how she got there, not even the members of the underground guild – the Runners and the Schöpfers – who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the wall. Now as a stranger in an oppressive regime, Ellie must hide from the police with the help of Kai, a Runner struggling with his own uneasy relationship with the powerful Balloonmakers and his growing feelings for Ellie. Together they search for the truth behind Ellie’s mysterious time travel, and when they uncover a plot to alter history with dark magic, she must risk everything – including her only way home – to stop the deadly plans.