In this debut YA novel from Katherine Locke, Ellie Baum has traveled to Germany with her high school German II class in defiance of her beloved grandfather’s wishes. Her grandfather, Benno Hirsch, miraculously survived the Chelmno concentration camp, but now his mind wanders in the throes of dementia as he refers to a magical red balloon that saved him. While taking pictures of the remains of the Berlin Wall, Ellie sees what appears to be a plain red balloon and grabs it. It pulls her back in time, to East Berlin in 1988, where she learns of a secret society of balloonmakers and runners helping to smuggle dissidents out of the totalitarian Communist country.
However, something has gone very wrong, because the magic balloons were only supposed to take people to freedom and safety in their own time, not into the past or the future. And the person who was supposed to have Ellie’s balloon is now dead. It’s up to the runners who find her – the Romanichal boy Kai, who has come from England with his odd genius younger sister in order to save her from institutionalization, and Mitzi, an East German girl whose sexual orientation has made her an outcast – to find out the problem and send Ellie back to her own time and place.
Interspersed with Ellie and Kai’s chapters are ones from Benno’s point of view, describing the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto and the origins of the balloons. The multiple points of view are woven in to build suspense, slowly revealing the magical world of the balloonmakers and the intrigues among them. Although the core of the story involves Ellie’s relationship with her grandfather and the intergenerational effects of trauma, the landscape of Communist East Berlin offers a perfect setting for the meeting place, with its pervasive bleakness and ever-present danger.
Scientific and philosophical concepts related to magic, ethics, and time travel give this novel complexity and depth and evoke Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a classic whose influence on the author is clear. Locke admirably carries this tradition forward with her multifaceted and original story. The Girl with the Red Balloon is the first in what is now planned as a duology and a strong beginning to this series.