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Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Twelve-year-old Pete Collison is a normal kid living in Brooklyn in the 1950s. He loves detective stories and playing ball with his friends. But one day, his friends won’t let him play. His teacher Mr. Donavan has started telling students and their parents that Pete’s dad is a "commie." Even Pete’s best friend, Kat, has been warned by her father to stay clear of Pete.

Pete isn’t really sure what it means to be a communist. He only knows his dad, a college professor of American history, has never taught him anything but patriotism. When Pete receives a secret visit from an FBI agent named Ewing, he’s more confused than ever.

Pete finally asks his dad about communism. Dad says he attended a Communist Party meeting at 19 and signed on. As a young idealist, he had been intrigued by the concept of socialism. That was his first and only meeting. He had quickly determined the kinds of communism he was seeing in the world, such as the dictatorship of the Soviet Union, were not what he supported.

He explains to Pete that there is currently a great fear of communists in America. It wouldn’t matter to some that Dad’s association with them had been short-lived and was decades earlier. Pete doesn’t mention that the FBI agent also asked about his grandfather, who died before he was born. Now he begins to wonder if there was more to his grandfather than Dad has told him.

Tensions rise at school, as Mr. Donavan begins giving Pete undeserved bad grades and urging the other kids to keep their distance from the boy. Kat’s parents are so concerned about their friendship that they send Kat off to boarding school. Agent Ewing continues to trail Pete. Meanwhile, Pete decides to follow in the footsteps of his detective hero, Sam Spade.

He questions his grandmother, great uncle and Dad’s old friend about his father. He even follows Dad to a nursing home, where Dad visits a dying man whom Pete assumes is his grandfather. Maybe Dad lied about him being dead. Pete knows his brother, Bobby, has been looking through Dad’s files. He wonders what information Bobby may have shared with the FBI, and why.

Pete often reads to a blind man named Mr. Ordson. He alternately wonders if Mr. Ordson is a friend or another informant with whom he’s shared too much information. Dad informs the family that he’s lost his job because the college is concerned about his record. He’s also been called to testify about his communist activities.

When Pete finally admits that he followed Dad to the nursing home, his father gives him more information. Dad’s father did die, in a prison camp in Soviet Russia. He had left the family, hoping for a better life there in a time when work in the U.S. was hard to find. Dad confesses to having had a younger brother named Frank. No one speaks of him anymore, so Pete never knew he existed. Frank was a little younger than Dad, and Dad urged him to go with their father to Russia.

Both Dad and Frank suffered greatly at the hands of the Russians. Recently, Dad learned that Frank had made it back to the U.S. Frank had aged terribly and was in bad health. Dad secretly got him set up in a nursing home nearby under a fake name. Dad feels overwhelming guilt for having urged his brother to go to Russia.

Pete has an opportunity to see Frank briefly before the man dies. Dad is somewhat relieved when Frank passes. When he testifies, he won’t have to mention his brother’s name in conjunction with communism. Pete confirms Bobby and Uncle Chris, a self-proclaimed communist at odds with Dad, have been talking to Agent Ewing. Bobby had been promised a spot in an elite space camp if he would cooperate with the FBI.

Bobby later learns he’s been denied. Dad testifies about his brief experience with communism and stands his ground about his rights as an American citizen. He isn’t convicted, and a relative offers him a job selling insurance. After reflecting on his dad’s relationship with Frank, Pete decides not to tell Dad that Bobby talked to the FBI. Pete tells his brother he knows what he did. Bobby is remorseful for his actions and grateful that Pete will keep his secret. The book ends with Pete making a trip to visit Kat at her school.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Pete’s mom is a school guidance counselor, and his dad teaches American history in college. While Dad is reluctant to tell everything about his past, he answers Pete’s difficult questions. Dad categorizes himself as an anti-communist socialist. Pete’s teacher, Mr. Donavan, spreads rumors to kids, parents and the FBI about Dad. He allows other students to treat Pete unfairly and alters Pete’s grades to reflect his own prejudice and assumptions.

Kat tells Pete her parents don’t like each other and says her dad often calls her mother “stupid.” They end up getting a divorce. Uncle Chris admits to being a proud communist. He claims to have tried to be a father to Pete’s dad. His actions were harsh and borderline abusive, which is one reason Dad left home as a young man.


The Lord’s name is used in vain half a dozen times. Heck also appears.



Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Smoking: Dad smokes. He calls cigarettes “coffin nails.” He says they got him through the war, but they’ll probably kill him in the end.

Lying/Sneaking: Pete lies to his parents and secretly follows his dad. Kat sneaks around to see Pete against her parents’ wishes. Bobby snoops in Dad’s files and works with Uncle Chris to give information about Dad to the FBI. Agent Ewing follows Pete on a number of occasions as he tries to obtain information to convict Pete’s dad.

Divorce: Kat’s parents fight frequently and eventually get divorced. Seven years after Dad’s father went away, Dad’s mom filed for divorce.

Communism: Uncle Chris is a self-proclaimed communist. Dad and his father and brother dabbled in communism before rejecting it. Dad’s father and brother suffered severely at the hands of communists in Russia. Conversely, militant anti-communists like Donavan show the injustice of attempting to search out and harass those with unpopular views.

Historical mentions: The author mentions historical circumstances from the 1950s and events like the Red Scare, Hoovervilles (shanty towns), New York baseball rivalries and the harsh conditions in Soviet Russia.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

10 to 15








Record Label



Algonquin Young Readers, an imprint of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill


On Video

Year Published



School Library Journal Starred Review, 2015; Edgar Allen Poe Award (Nominee), 2016 and others


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