Cloud and Wallfish
by Anne Nesbet
Intermediate Candlewick 390 pp.
10/16 978-0-7636-8803-5 $16.99
Noah Keller’s life in 1989 small-town Virginia is uneventful — until the day his parents pick him up after school and whisk him off to East Berlin, where, he is told, his PhD candidate mother will be researching children’s speech challenges such as his own persistent stutter. Similar to Alice’s trip through the looking glass (Alice is the only book he’s allowed to bring with him), everything turns topsy-turvy. His parents tell him his name is now Jonah Brown; give him a photo album full of images of the family living a different life; and impose a set of rules to follow, most especially “Rule Number One: They will always be listening.” “They” are East Germany’s secret police, and Noah quickly learns that they are indeed everywhere. As the novel unfolds, the secrets keep piling up. There’s the girl downstairs staying with her grandmother because her parents have mysteriously died: Claudia, whom he nicknames Cloud (while she calls him Wallfish, which sounds like the German word for whale, playing off his new name and the Berlin Wall that separates them from the rest of the world). And what about Noah’s mother? There is growing evidence that she may not be what he thinks she is (The Americans, anyone?). In this atmospheric page-turner set just as the Iron Curtain begins to lift, Nesbet deftly ratchets up the tension, using a close third-person omniscient narration to keep readers experiencing one unnerving event after another, just as Noah does. Scattered throughout are “Secret File” sidebars with facts and information about East Germany and the Cold War at that time. This is edgy, dramatic, and emotionally rich historical fiction that provides a vivid look into an extraordinary moment in history.
From the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.