A lookery at “A Place We Knew Well” by Susan Carol McCarthy

A Place We Knew well

A Place We Knew Well

Susan Carol McCarthy

Bantam

September 29, 2015

272 pages

$27.00

It is mid-October, 1963. Homecoming Week in the sleepy town of College Park, Florida. Unbeknownst to the locals, it is also the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy drops the reader into the middle of the terrifying events that held the nation captive for weeks.

Wes Avery is a veteran of World War II, and has seen firsthand the complete devastation wrought by the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He owns a Texaco gas station on the main road in and out of town. Not far from the location of his business is the McCoy Air Force Base, which is suddenly much more active than usual.

Charlotte, Wes’ shy, intelligent, Titian-tressed daughter has just been informed that she will be on the high school’s Homecoming Court. Meanwhile, her mother Sarah is frantically trying to cope with the pressure of putting on a bomb shelter display for the local Civil Defense show. And the micro-managing Women’s Club president is driving her crazy with the task.

Emilio Alvarez is one of the Cuban “Pedro Pans” — a program sponsored by the Catholic Church to get youngsters out of Castro’s Cuba. Emilio works for Wes at the Texaco station and attends the local parochial high school.

President Kennedy defines the crisis for the entire country on television and radio. Bordering the Orlando Strategic Air Command Base, all of the Cape Canaveral area is especially anxious and alert. The local residents are either fleeing the area, stockpiling supplies or trying to maintain an atmosphere of normalcy as College Park prepares for the Homecoming festivities and the Civil Defense show. Romances blossom, marriages are strained, others can’t handle the intense pressure of the crisis and other events, and a deep, dark, secret raises its ugly head to threaten the delicate peace of the Avery family.

The author lets us in on the townies’ efforts to remain normal in exceptionally abnormal circumstances. The terror of the time is evident, and McCarthy exposes the emotions of her characters’ strife, trust, camaraderie, fear, anxiety and frayed nerves. Life in the quiet town continues as it brings out the best and the worst qualities of its citizens. During a national emergency, Susan Carol McCarthy shows how human strengths and frailties exist and struggle side by side. Gifts of generosity are evident, as well as selfish, self-serving acts.

In A Place We Knew Well human nature is put to the test by extraordinary circumstances. Susan Carol McCarthy uses this small community to give readers a glimpse of just how frightening these few weeks were for the entire country. Her novel shows the big picture of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the story of a small town in the midst of the stand-off. McCarthy’s talent lies in her ability to bring to life just how heroic and flawed we can be during dangerous times. I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Place We Knew Well, and highly recommend this insightful novel to all with little or great knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

With thanks to NetGalley and Bantam for an advance copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

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A Lookery at “Leaving Berlin” by Joseph Kanon

leaving-berlin

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon
Atria (Simon and Schuster)
March 3, 2015
384 pages

Alex Stein, a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany to America with the help of close family friends, is now going back to Russian-occupied Berlin, leaving behind his son Peter, and his estranged wife, Marjorie. Stein is a victim of McCarthyism, refusing to inform on his friends who may have Communist sympathies. Singled out because of his membership in the Party prior to World War II, Stein is forced to leave the United States for being in contempt of the Congressional committee.

Alex is asked by the precursor to the CIA to “keep his eyes open” while in Berlin; the incentive to comply with this request being the possibility of returning to the U.S. and his family.

Such is the premise of Joseph Kanon’s latest espionage thriller Leaving Berlin.

But immediately on arrival in the divided city, Alex’s singular contact with the U.S. government is killed, and he is left adrift without support from his adopted homeland. He is welcomed by the German Kulturbund, which is recruiting previously exiled artists to create a new artistic community in the Russian sector of Berlin. There he meets old friends — actors, directors, playwrights, poets, authors and of course, Irene, an old flame who is part of the family that helped him escape to the U.S. fifteen years ago.

But there is no free ride in the new Germany, under Russian control in the East. Before long, Stein is asked to inform on certain members of the Kulturbund and is unwittingly tricked into reporting on friends’ activities and conversations. At the same time, the U.S. makes contact with their green asset and pumps Alex for kernels of information on Russian and German actions only whispered about in the West.

Alex becomes involved with hiding Erich, an extremely ill escaped political prisoner. Friend and family ties are tested in the efforts to heal and hide the young man. When Stein makes arrangements to get his friend to the safety in the West, all hell breaks loose.

It is at this point that Joseph Kanon’s expertise at plot twists involving betrayals and secrets becomes evident. His characters don’t know who to trust and the tension and their fear is palpable on the page. Leaving Berlin is an excellent look at the emerging Communist society of what will become East Berlin.

The Berlin Airlift, the appalling rubble and ruin towering everywhere one looks and the confusion and fear of average citizens (even those who support Communism) is reported faithfully by author Kanon.

An insightful look into the fledgling East German Communist society, Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin is a tension-filled exciting page-turner. Recommended for fans of the early days of the Cold War and post WWII espionage and politics.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon is courtesy of the publisher Atria (Simon and Schuster) and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.