It’s 1961, and three high-school friends cut class to attend the May Day rally in East Berlin in the last tense days before the wall goes up.
Set apart from their classmates by their seriousness and their intelligence, Ulrich Neuhaus, Michael Montgomery, and Katherine “Kit” Carson come from complicated backgrounds. Leipzig-born Ulrich’s stepfather is an Air Force general and a spook. His mother Charlotte is an aristocrat haunted by her wartime marriage to Ulrich’s father. Kit, a fledgling writer, has an abusive sergeant for a father, an accommodating southern mother, and secret plans to attend Ole Miss. Michael, crippled by polio, lives alone with his overprotective banker father Paul, who blames himself for the accidental death of Michael’s mother. It is the politically studious Ulrich who proposes the disastrous trip that is at the center of Carroll’s somber and evocative look at some of the most frightening times in one of the most frightening places in the Cold War. Keen to pass through the only opening in the Iron Curtain for a look at the country his mother and he fled, Ulrich enlists Michael (who has his father’s car for the week) and Kit (who may be sweet on him) to pose as a debating team headed for a match in West Berlin. On their harrowing trip in the sealed shuttle train from the free West to the island city, eastern guards discover a roll of film in the gym bag Ulrich “borrowed” from his high-ranking stepfather, and the trip begins to go disastrously awry. The three think they’ve fast-talked their way out of trouble, but once they cross into the eastern zone they are scooped up by the authorities. Paul and Charlotte, meanwhile, have used their connections to trace the students and begin their own harrowing trip to retrieve them. Novelist and memoirist Carroll, whose 2001 Constantine’s Sword was a bestselling analysis of the Roman Catholic Church’s dealings with the Reich, makes excellent use of his firsthand knowledge of the territory, stumbling only slightly on the romances.
Fine period thriller.