It can be hard to make historical fiction exciting and relevant to middle graders, particularly when it’s not part of the American experience. With Cloud and Wallfish, Nesbet (The Cabinet of Earths, HarperCollins, 2012) has written a marvelously layered and insightful novel about the Cold War and gives the reader a way in through vividly created characters.
It’s 1989, and out of the blue, 11 year-old Noah Keller is whisked off to East Berlin by his parents, ostensibly for his mother to complete her doctoral dissertation on methods of speech therapy. But why does he need to have a different name and different birthday, and why are all the Rules (“1. They will always be listening and often be watching. Don’t forget that!”) necessary? Noah finally makes a friend, Claudia, but when her parents are killed in a car accident in Hungary, what he thinks he knows begins to drift and warp.
Noah has an Astonishing Stutter, and here is how Nesbet has him describe it:
“Talking was like riding a bike with a wheel that liked to freeze up, almost out of nowhere…that wheel would simply stop short, like an invisible wall had suddenly sprung up in the road before him, and he and his bicycle would just bang right into that wall and stop.”
All his life he has had to deal with people’s assumptions about his intelligence, and rather than shy away from speaking, Noah “kept opening his mouth and plowing on.” The author makes an explicit decision not to write out the “shards and pieces” of his speech, but rather to just record what he meant to say. Nonetheless, there are sufficient references to the stutter in the text that the reader isn’t allowed to forget what he is struggling with. We can also see that he is an exceptionally smart boy as he attempts to untangle the truth from the deception. He has a very organized mind – he starts keeping mental folders on Mom and Dad – and he also has great empathy and compassion
The support characters are also extremely well-crafted. Claudia aka Cloud is an imaginative, creative, wistful girl, utterly unsuited to the harsh straight lines and undercurrents of the German Democratic Republic. Noah’s Mom and Dad who mysteriously morph from the Kellers of Oasis, VA to Sam and Linda Brown, suddenly knowing so much more than they have previously revealed, are also regular warm, loving. protective parents.
Anne Nesbet was in East Berlin at the exact time she has set the novel – the looming 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic – and her intimate understanding, which she writes about in an author’s note at the back, really brings Noah’s complex experiences to vivid life. The city behind the Wall is full of unanswered questions, barriers, secrets, and disguises. As Noah perceives Berlin as a zoo, he tries to understand who are the spectators looking in and who are trapped looking out, and he sees himself as a wallfish swimming “through the stone wall in the middle of inside and outside.”
Each chapter concludes with notes from a secret file, which the author uses to explain the context or background of incidents in the text, often using actual quotations from contemporary East German proclamations or newspapers. As Noah’s father sniffs the air for the smell of history being made, Nesbet ensures that 21st century middle grade readers can understand the enormity of the events as they happen, at the same time as giving them an emotional heart through Noah and Claudia.
Though written from an American perspective, the author does include the harsh East German perceptions of Western society, which may come as a thought-provoking surprise to some readers. This would make a great companion read to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s A Night Divided (Scholastic, 2015), which has an East German perspective at the time of the building of the Wall.
Thanks to Candlewick for the ARC.