In Germany 1934 the last place you’d look for a fifteen-year-old Jewish girl is in a Hitler worshipping all girls school, but that is exactly where you should look in Matthew Killeen’s Orphan Monster Spy. Killeen delivers a tense, frightening young adult novel steeped in a terrible chapter of world history.
Orphan Monster Spy opens up on Sarah Goldstein and her mother as they attempt to escape Germany. It quickly goes to hell when her mother is shot and killed. This opening scene sets the pace for most of the rest of the book. We are going to be in for a difficult read where no one is safe and danger is around every corner.
Sarah is able to run from the soldiers and comes across an English spy. Captain Floyd is in Germany to stop the development of a neutron bomb. They hit it off and through a series of events become partners working toward the same goal.
Sarah and the Captain become the perfect counterpoint to some of the more tense scenes in this story. Starting off as tentative partners, their relationship develops into an almost familiar father/daughter team. Sarah wants to help the Captain so she agrees to infiltrate a German all girls school and befriend the daughter of Dr. Hans Schafer a scientist developing a neutron bomb. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Sarah and the Captain together and found myself wishing the story focused on Sarah learning to be a spy.
Throughout the story Killeen weaves in glimpses of Sarah’s life before and during Nazi occupation. She was training to be a gymnast, her mother gave her acting lessons, and her father wasn’t Jewish. We also see them on the run, hiding in apartments and stealing food. In one particular painful memory, Sarah is being bullied until a Jewish butcher steps in. That night she breaks into the butcher’s shop to steal food. Instead of being stopped, the butcher offers to help by giving her food. These little vignettes of Sarah’s past offer up a terrible view into being Jewish in Hitler’s Germany.
The main chunk of Orphan Monster Spy is spent in Rothenstadt, a school teaching girls how to be good German women. We might spend a little too much time here and it begins to distract from the main mission, but the picture Killeen paints of the school more than makes up for it.
Rothenstadt is a run-down hell full of corrupt officials, insane teachers, and the ultimate clique of mean girls. They spend most of the time focused on signing songs in praise of Germany or why the National Socialist party is doing what they are doing. Putting Sarah in the middle of it all, having her memorize songs about the terrors of the Jew or watch as her friend gets beat repeatedly is haunting. The tension is palpable as you hope no one discovers that Sarah is a spy or that she is Jewish.
This section does start to come off as a retread of Ender’s Game or even The Hunger Games. It seems that Sarah’s skills as a gymnast and actor make her the perfect candidate to come into this school and survive. Her plan was to blend in, yet she manages to gain the attention of the “Ice Queen” and her clique of mean girls. So much like those other YA novels, she now has to stand up to the bullies, win the heart of the other students, and befriend one of the smaller weaker students. Sarah is not perfect, she does get injured by the clique and a teacher, but still manages to overcome all of the obstacles thrown at her.
If it wasn’t for the dread of discovery by the Nazis, the school section would feel too much like what’s come before. But, the knowledge of the Nazi party and how they are brainwashing the young women give Orphan Monster Spy the horrible realization that this could have happened. There is an energy to the story that keeps it from being a carbon copy of a young girl fighting a super power.
After what seems like a year at Rothenstadt and that the mission has gone on long enough, Sarah is able to befriend Elsa Schafer, Dr. Hans Schafer’s daughter and the main reason she is at the school. It feels a bit weird that there wasn’t more urgency in trying to stop the creation of a bomb, did anyone question the Captain’s plan?
Dr. Hans Schafer is an amiable man more focused on science than on Hitler’s dreams for Germany. He opens up his home to Sarah for Christmas break, giving her a nice dress, lots of wine, and a tour of his lab. And as things go on we discover he has an ulterior motive as to why he invited Sarah over. This is probably the most terrifying part of the book. It’s not graphic, but there is enough of a suggestion that I feel like I must warn you that it might make you uncomfortable.
At the end of the book, Killeen added an author’s note regarding his research. While Sarah, Captain Floyd, and a mission to infiltrate a school were not true, a lot of what is in here is based on truth. Schools like Rothenstadt existed, there was a night where Germans took to the street and attacked Jewish people, and so much more in here.
We also find out there is going to be a sequel coming in 2019 following more of the adventures of Sarah and Captain Floyd.
I believe art and storytelling is one of the best ways to preserve the past, and Orphan Monster Spy is a great example on how to do this. Yes it follows one too many YA tropes, but that can be forgiven because of it being steeped in history. And if Killeen is able to get someone interested in history then all the better.
Orphan Monster Spy is published by Usborne Books and is available here.
Matt Killeen was born in Birmingham and, like many of his generation, was absorbed by tales of the war and obsessed with football from an early age. Guitars arrived at fourteen, wrecking any hopes of so-called normality. He has had a great many careers – some creative, some involving laser guns – and has made a living as an advertising copywriter and largely ignored music and sports journalist. He fulfilled a childhood ambition and became a writer for the world’s best-loved toy company in 2010. He lives near London with his soulmate, children, dog and musical instruments, looking wistfully north at a hometown that has been largely demolished & rebuilt in his lengthy absence.Orphan Monster Spy is his first novel.
Reviewed by Matt Brandenberg
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