After seeing it on my timeline consistently, I finally got the chance to take Katherine Locke’s The Girl with the Red Balloon out of the library. As somebody reconnecting with a Jewish heritage I never got to learn about, I was pretty excited, but I didn’t know much about what to expect. What I got was haunting, gorgeous historical fiction exploring a period of history not often dwelled on in North American schools.
The Girl With The Red Balloon follows Ellie Baum, an American in Germany on a school trip, as she grabs a red balloon drifting in a park – and is hurtled into the past. Specifically, into East Berlin during the 1960s, where she is immediately a refugee – and a problem for the Balloonmakers, the magician-scientists who use enchanted balloons to lift escapees over the Berlin Wall. What follows is a mix of intrigue, science fiction and urban fantasy, with Soviet Union-era East Berlin not just as a backdrop but an intrinsic part of the story.
I think my absolute favourite part of this book is how it engages with Ellie and Kai’s backgrounds. Kai is Romanichal – and let me tell you, I didn’t know about that bit of representation and I YELLED – and trying to protect his little sister, and Ellie is the grandchild of a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Neither of these are there just for flavor(although incidental representation is an important topic) but have everything to do with the novel’s central themes of history and survivor’s guilt. I can’t discuss exactly what bites so hard about the novel’s ending without spoiling it, but it also touches on one of my pet causes – empathy as a weapon, or as something that can damage and hurt, instead of as a universal good.
The one part I was less convinced by was the central romance, but as I’ve noticed with a lot of my reviews, it takes a lot for me to get involved with any romance, so it’s hard to tell how much of this is personal preference and how much of it is the romance itself. I feel like the book would have worked just fine without it, but it isn’t distractingly mushy either – it’s just not what I came away from the book remembering.
Back to the Romani rep for a moment – I will admit I’m not sure how I feel about Sabina, Kai’s sister. She’s gifted with powerful magic that makes her a little bit loopy and disconnected, and while I don’t think I mind that on its own, a few of her moments lean a little close to the ‘Romani witch/fortune-teller’ stereotype. Not enough to hit, but enough to make me flinch. Still, I’m so unused to Romani rep showing up unexpectedly that it’s a small gripe, and I’m putting it here mostly as a heads-up to other Romani folks who might be caught off-guard by it.
Trigger warnings for The Girl With The Red Balloon include Holocaust depictions, mass murder, authoritarianism, and some background homophobia and racism.