From her “Chicks Up Front” days to a recent piece on how one of her poems was botched by a Texas standardized test, Sara Holbrook has always been in the right place, saying what needs to be said. It’s no surprise that her first novel for young readers, The Enemy: Detroit 1954, is perfectly in sync with our troubled times.
Holbrook’s main character Marjorie Campbell is twelve years old as the atrocities of World War II are still etched in the minds of Americans, although children of her age have no direct memories of them. Many are also preoccupied with the Cold War fears of creeping Communism. For Marjorie and other children, these perceptions are playing out for real in their Detroit neighborhood when books deemed subversive (1984, The Grapes of Wrath) are removed from library shelves, and newcomers are treated with suspicion. When Marjorie is assigned to share a desk with the just-arrived Inga, she is torn between her instinct to be friendly and her classmates’ intentions to be unwelcoming.
Holbrook respects her readers by presenting the complexity of Marjorie’s situation. Members of her family and community have been directly affected by the war, and they harbor negative attitudes toward Germans and DPs (displaced persons). Others are concerned with over-reaching attempts to limit freedoms in the name of safeguarding against Communism. Marjorie takes it all in, and then relies on her heart to make decisions about how she will navigate her neighborhood and her world.
Marjorie’s voice in The Enemy is charmingly innocent, smart, and vulnerable. Here is her description of one of the local librarians: “Mrs. Pearson has her arms crossed tightly, the way she always does. Crossed arms are as natural to her as breathing. It makes me wonder how she opens a car door or flushes a toilet. I imagine she was born with her arms crossed, telling the doctor to keep it down as soon as she opened her eyes.” Sara Holbrook definitely knows how kids think and speak.
Today’s middle school and high school students are well aware of what is going on around them. They see the protests and hear the inflammatory rhetoric. Reading The Enemy: Detroit 1954 in a time when our government is focused on creating a classes of “others” through harsh characterizations and targeted immigration policies will give adolescents a context for processing their own roles in today’s swirling events, and considering whether “the enemy” is outsiders or dark impulses closer to home.