history, middle grade

Middle Grade Must-Read: Catch You Later, Traitor

Catch You Later, Traitor (Algonquin Young Readers)
Written by Avi

The Second Red Scare (1947-1957) is a period of American history not often addressed with our younger students. As the political climate in the United States becomes increasingly reactionary (one look at today’s headlines shows the horror), we must inform our students about times in America’s past when people’s political beliefs were used to harm them. The tradition in the United States in times of political strife is for most of the brutality to be visited upon Leftists’ heads. This was no more apparent than during the McCarthy era when people lost jobs and were even sent to prison simply for holding a political belief supportive of Communism. 

Pete is in seventh grade and is much like your average kid from early 1950s New York City. He loves the Dodgers, reading Dashiel Hammett’s crime novels, and hanging out with his best friend, Kat. However, things rapidly change when accusations of Communism are thrown at his history professor father. This leads to Pete taking on the things he’s learned from his detective stories to uncover the obscured history of his family. He begins to learn more about a grandfather he believed died before he was born, his father’s youth, and how people are hurt by many of the institutions that make up American society. He’ll also be saddled with heavy pressure from his school teacher, Mr. Donovan, and a pestering FBI agent.

Part of the importance of this book is how it presents the feeling of a whole society turning against you, something experienced by so many people during the Red Scare. It will be difficult to read the novel without getting incredibly angry with how Pete is never really listened to by anyone other than Kat and his parents. There’s a profound sense of helplessness as people treat him as a spy out to undermine American society. What’s empowering is how our protagonist uses books he treasures to guide him in uncovering the truth about his world. His favorite author, Dashiell Hammett, was imprisoned for refusing to name names and saw his reputation as a writer ruined as a result of these witch hunts. 

Avi pulls off a rare feat, folding in a searing indictment of conformist society while writing in the genuine voice of a young person. There are a lot of details obscured because of our main character’s age; he won’t know the whole truth until he is older. The text also provides an opportunity for rich discussion, exploring why people would turn on their family members during this period. As we see books being banned, people’s identities and rights being made illegal, and frequent misuse of terms like “communism” in popular discourse, it is vital that we provide our students with literature that develops their understanding. Ignorance is how oppression spreads.

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