Does history repeat?
While every student of the subject knows that the answer to that question is not as clear as it would seem to be, it does seem that history can repeat adolescence — and this is one genius of L.M. Elliott’s novel centered on an American slice of the Cold War.
“Suspect Red” (Disney-Hyperion), published in September 2017, is not a new work. But, given its recent accolade as winner of the Grateful American Book Prize, it has been gifted a new media shelf life, and rightfully so. While myriad middle schoolers are already in tune with the novel’s enthralling and realistic retreat into a slice of the mid-1950s hunt for communists in America, the novel may have largely missed the adult playlist.
Uncorrected, this would have been a disservice to American letters. The novel is that rare story that blurs boundaries between YA and adult fiction: It speaks not only to the adolescent in your household — and the adolescent you once were — but to themes deeply entrenched in today’s headlines.
Before becoming a best-selling novelist, Elliott was a veteran journalist with the heart of a teacher. That combination makes for a gifted storyteller, and “Suspect Red” is a fine gift. Elliott’s story of young Richard’s choice between reporting suspicions of his new Czechoslovakian friend to his G-man dad or prizing loyalty above patriotism makes for a well-seeded portrait of the fears and angst many Americans experienced during the Cold War at the height of the McCarthy era.
Setting the story in Washington, D.C., and building the action on the inner workings and major figures of the Federal Bureau of Investigation allows Elliott to craft a unique story that voices an especially troubling time in American history.
The magic of that story is that the subjects so pronounced then — social shunning, bullying, detrimental labeling, gossip — mirror the challenges of many adolescent lives today.
Incorporating photos, news clippings, headlines and quotes from the period, Elliott’s “Suspect Red” is an intricately drawn portraiture of an insecure nation. As so, it drops us into an epoch of American history that speaks volumes to today’s readers.