The Enemy: Detroit 1954
Written by Sara Holbrook
Calkins Creek, 2017, 224 pp.
2018 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award
Winner, Books for Older Children
Marjorie Campbell, in typical 6th-grade fashion, does her best to obey her parents, fit in at school, and please her best friend. It’s the height of McCarthyism, and fear and paranoia are pervasive. Talk about the enemy permeates virtually every aspect of her life, whether it is snowball fighting, reading “un-American” books, banning suspicious neighbors, or simply wearing a red scarf. It’s in this unique setting that Marjorie relentlessly questions her family, her friends and herself. Marjorie’s veteran father keeps telling her “the war is over, kid,” (p. 238) but is it? All Marjorie sees is a growing intolerance — her once friendly and accepting neighbors now shun newcomers whom they see as foreign and dangerous. Where they see enemies, Marjorie sees only people just like her and her family.
All the families I know come from somewhere else. Piper’s family is Slovak. Mary Virginia’s is Irish like Bernadette’s, but they haven’t been here as long. My family came over on the boat when ships still had sails, but both Piper and Mary Virginia have grandmothers who don’t speak English. Being from somewhere else is pretty normal in our neighborhood (p. 51).
Marjorie is left to wonder who exactly is “the enemy?” Her Mom tells her “she’s met the enemy and it’s Mrs. Pearson at the library” (p. 93). Frank considers the Nazis to be his enemy. Her “Dad was previously enemies with the Nazis, but now that he’s signed a loyalty oath, he’s enemies with the commies” (p. 93). Mrs. Ferguson’s enemies are the Italians and the Lutherans. For Marjorie’s school friends, a new student who recently arrived from Canada, but is clearly German, becomes the enemy.
As Marjorie grapples with the notion of “the enemy,” readers contemplate the origins of hatred toward others. How it is that we end up labeling someone as our enemy? Why do we create dangerous stereotypes? What steps need to be taken to move past a label that has been assigned to a person or group? Readers experience a wide range of emotions as they turn pages. There are passages that make readers laugh, wince, and leave them pondering their own actions had they been in Marjorie’s shoes. Quite possibly, readers will be left with more questions and concerns than were answered or resolved in the book. Holbrook would say this is just as it should be:
Books […] stretch your brain, so there’s enough room for lots of ideas: good ideas, bad ideas, ideas different than the ideas you grow up with. From those ideas you can make your own ideas, different ideas. Different is a good way to be. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. (p. 189)
A well-published poet and educator with several books to her name, Holbrook debuted as a middle-grade author with The Enemy. On her website, the author explains that she writes what she “knows and wonders about,” and that writing “helps [her] see what’s true.” The Enemy helps readers also see “what’s true” by inviting them to experience daily life during the Cold War years — the loyalty oath, blacklisting, book bans and the constant reminder that “spies are in the midst.” The Enemy: Detroit 1954 was awarded the 2018 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for its genuine portrayal of a resilient girl navigating ethical dilemmas and raising questions that further Jane Addams’ conviction that true peace means ensuring justice for all people. It was also named a YALSA 2018 Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers.
Holbrook’s novel could be paired with additional texts that throw light on the fears that prevailed during the mid-late Twentieth Century, as found in Deborah Wiles’ trilogy of documentary novels — Countdown (2010), Revolution (2017), and Anthem (2019). For books that present characters who, like Marjorie in The Enemy: Detroit 1954, stand strong in the face of injustice and ethical dilemma, along with Addams Award Honor books Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk (2016), Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins, Stan Yogi, and Yutaka Houlette, (2017) and Supriya Kelkar’s 2017 novel, Ahimsa.
Heather J. Palmer, Edina Public Schools, Minnesota
WOW Review, Volume XII, Issue 2 by World of Words is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on work at https://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/xii-2/