Series: The Balloonmakers #1
Published by Albert Whitman Company on September 1st 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Katherine Locke’s The Girl with the Red Balloon is such a gorgeous and moving book that I’m nearly at a loss for words to convey just how good it really is. I finished reading it a few days ago and just can’t stop thinking about it. The Girl with the Red Balloon is not a light read by any stretch of the imagination – it deals with weighty subjects like the Holocaust, racism, homophobia, and what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain before the Berlin Wall fell. For the most part, it’s a dark and gritty dual time period read that shows how horrific it was for Jews during World War II as well as how difficult it was to live under the eye of a totalitarian regime in 1980’s East Germany. It’s not all darkness and horror though. Katherine Locke uses a hint of magic and a bit of romance to offset all of that darkness. You see, not only is this novel historical fiction that deals with more than one time period. It’s also a time travel novel.
The Girl with the Red Balloon begins in present day Germany where we meet one of our main characters, sixteen year old Ellie Baum, who has traveled there on a class field trip. She sees a red balloon floating nearby while hanging out with her classmates and asks her best friend to take a photo of her with it for her grandfather. It reminds her of a story her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, always tells her, about how a girl in a purple dress handed him a red balloon when he arrived at a concentration camp during the war, and the balloon floated him out of the camp and to safety.
When Ellie grabs the balloon, however, the unexpected and unbelievable happens. She travels back in time to 1988 and finds herself in East Berlin and in imminent danger! There she is found and led to a safe house by Kai and Mitzi, a Romani gypsy and a German lesbian, who are part of a magical resistance group who uses red balloons to float people over the Berlin Wall and into West Germany. The catch? These balloons, while magical, are not supposed to travel through time. The balloon makers are stumped as to what has happened to bring Ellie to them and are therefore unsure of how to get her back to her own time period. The resistance group vows to keep Ellie safe from the East German police and to do everything they can to find a way to get her home, but when dead time travelers start turning up with red balloons, it becomes clear that someone is experimenting with forbidden dark magic and time travel. Why is someone trying to travel back in time and why are they so willing to do it, even at the expense of innocent lives? If others are dying when they grab these balloons, how was Ellie able to safely travel back in time? It becomes a race against time to stop who is behind this before the bodies start piling up, even if it means Ellie loses out on perhaps her only way back to the future.
This is another one of those books where I could just write pages and pages about what I liked. I don’t want to give anything away though so I’m just going to list a few highlights.
The friendship between Ellie and her two protectors, Kai and Mitzi, was one of my favorite parts of the book. These three become fast friends while living in the safe house together, and their chemistry is fantastic. They’re immediately like The Three Musketeers, all for one and one for all. I also loved the diversity that these characters represented – Ellie is Jewish, Kai is Romani, and Mitzi is a lesbian. This diversity further forges a bond between them since all three are considered undesirable in East Berlin during this time frame. The police would love nothing more than to find a reason to arrest them, so they always have each other’s backs.
As I mentioned, there is also a romance in this book and even though on the surface it might sound like somewhat out of place since we already have time traveling, the Holocaust, magical balloons, etc., the romance actually worked well for me. First, it’s not instalove, so yay. No, instead, the relationship develops quite naturally as Kai and Ellie get to know each other better. Kai is kind of dark and brooding at times and he sees Ellie as this softness and light that he needs in his life. Ellie becomes attracted to Kai, not just because he is handsome, but because of how he puts himself on the line trying to help as many people as he can get over into West Germany. Ellie is also touched when she sees how devoted Kai is to his younger sister, Sabina. He would literally do anything to keep Sabina safe and it’s heartwarming to see.
I was incredibly invested in this relationship not just because I liked that it developed naturally and that their two personalities really complimented each other, but also because it just tugged at my heart strings. What happens to their relationship if the balloon makers are able to figure out how to send Ellie back to her own time period? Would she go or would she stay with the man she is falling in love with?
Other highlights for me were the completely unique premise and the major themes of the novel. Seriously, it doesn’t get much more creative than the idea of using magical red balloons to save people. In addition to the unique premise, there were also so many themes that resonated me with as I was reading. With respect to those balloons, I loved the beautiful message that there were heroes everywhere, both during World War II and during the time of the Iron Curtain – people who risked their own safety trying to save as many people as they could. Another darker message that resonated with me as I got further into the story was more of a question of ethics – if a person’s overall intention is good, does that excuse any unethical behavior he or she may engage along the way accomplishing that goal? This was definitely food for thought for me as I was reading.
A final highlight for me was the way the story was presented. It’s presented in alternating chapters from the perspective of Kai and Ellie in 1988 East Berlin and from Ellie’s grandfather, Benno, as a young boy during World War II. I loved how presenting the story this way effectively moves Ellie’s time traveling story forward as well as her relationship with Kai, while at the same time, circling back and showing the origin of the red balloons. Seeing Benno’s horrific experiences in the Jewish ghettos, surrounded by disease and death, served as a poignant reminder that without that red balloon, neither Ellie nor any of her other family members would exist in present day. Ellie literally owes her life to that magical balloon.
The only real issue I had with this book was that it took me a few chapters to acclimate to the three alternating points of view. I’m not going to call that a dislike because once I got used to it and remembered, I thought it was a beautiful way to tie together what happened with Benno and a red balloon during the war and what happened to his granddaughter when she touches a red balloon over 40 years later.
The Girl with the Red Balloon is a book that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, magic, time travel, romance, and even mysteries. Not only does it have a little something for everyone, but it’s also just a beautifully written story that will be on your mind long after you read the final pages.
RATING: 5 STARS
Thanks so much to Katherine Locke, Netgalley, and the Albert Whitman Company for allowing me the opportunity to preview an advanced copy of this book. It in no way shapes my opinion of the book.
When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.