I reviewed and really enjoyed Anne Nesbet's debut novel, The Cabinet of Earth. It was exciting to read a middle grade fantasy novel set in Paris and I found the magic that Nesbet created for this story exciting and out of the ordinary. Nesbet followed with A Box of Gargoyles, a companion to her first book, then The Wrinkled Crown, another fantasy with the feel of a traditional fairy tale, albeit one with political undertones. It surprised me to find that Nesbet's new book, Cloud and Wallfish, is set in East Germany in 1989 and centers around the hard won friendship between an American boy with a paralyzing stutter and a curious girl who has been sent to live with her grandmother. Like what I imagine life in the German Democratic Republic prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall must have been like, Cloud and Wallfish is a quiet, secretive book that requests patience from readers. This patience will be rewarded, like the page turn that reveals the meaning to the title of this marvelous book, but some questions will never be answered.
Cloud and Wallfish begins in Oasis, Virginia in May of 1989. Noah Keller has almost finished fifth grade when his parents pick him up from school and completely turn his life upside down. Everything with his name on it is thrown into a trashcan at a rest stop on their way to the airport. They are headed to East Berlin, where Noah's mother has been given the opportunity to study the educational system in East Germany and finish her doctoral dissertation titled, "Differential Approaches to Elementary Education for Children with Special Speech-Production Impediments in East and West." This dissertation is especially personal for Noah and his mother because Noah stutters and has often been a guinea pig for his mother and her research. Noah also has a photographic memory, although he has not revealed this ability to his parents.
Noah's mother gives him a list of nine rules that he must adhere to strictly now that their "adventure" has begun, the first of which is, "They will always be listening and often be watching. Don't forget that." She also tells him that they are all changing their names, handing him a photo album filled with "memories" from a city they never lived in. Noah's dad also tells him that he was born in November and not March as he had always believed, sending him spiraling even further. Nesbet, by way of Noah's father, helps Noah cope with finding out that he isn't the person he thought he was, and that he is also being required to become a new person, in a humorously philosophical way that made me stop and think about identity,
Names change all the time. Some people change names when they get married, Some people write books under a pseudonym. Some people just always wanted to be called Rainbow Stormchaser, and one day they decide to make it so. Some people emerge from their wild teenage years and decide it's time to settle down to a quiet life in Oasis, Virginia, under different names entirely -
As an adult reading Cloud and Wallfish, there were so many moments that made me stop and think, and turn to Wikipedia, or my husband who is a history teacher and who also, like Nesbet, visited East Berlin as an exchange student (in fact, Nesbet, who is a professor at University of California Berkeley returned to the GDR in 1989 to work on her own dissertation). It was clear to me from the start that one or both of Noah's parents are spies (although Noah's stay-at-home dad insists that he is writing a novel about a mink farmer, he even puts locks his manuscript in the safe in their East German apartment every night), but I hope that young readers will come to this realization over the course of the novel along with Noah as he comes to suspect this himself.
Once in East Berlin, Noah's (now Jonah Brown) life comes to a grinding halt. Not only does he have to adhere to the nine rules, almost all of which include some form of not talking to anyone at any time, he is not allowed to go to school. Things do look up when he meets the girl living downstairs. Claudia, who is staying with her grandmother while her parents visit Hungary, is kept from talking to him, but she does get the chance to tell him that they are both changelings, strangers in this world and needing to get back to where they came from before they are forgotten. The two find their own coded ways to communicate, in the middle of country that is rife with codes and secret communications. One of my favorite, unforgettable things in Cloud and Wallfish is a communication the two share as they pass a map of Berlin back and forth. On this map, West Berlin is a blank, white blob amidst the streest of East Berlin and the two slowly begin drawing the intricate world of the changelings that they need to return to in this space.
The true climax of Cloud and Wallfish comes almost at the end of the novel, but "Secret Files" that Nesbet includes at the after each chapter (which are really non-fiction glimpses into this time in East Germany, with translations of newspaper articles and speeches and more, illuminating further the strange dystopian world that existed in Europe, in my lifetime) help to build the tension. I don't want to give too much away, but a tragedy with Claudia's parents and a secret revealed to Noah propels the two children into a dangerous situation just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nesbet's epilogue, which visits Claudia some years later, had me tearing up, in a good way.
Cloud and Wallfish is an amazing book that prompted me to learn more about the world that I live in. It is also a book that will require perseverance and dedication from readers, but also one that will reward this hard work. I hope that teachers and parents will embrace Cloud and Wallfish and read it out loud, a really great way to hook kids on a book they might not pick up or a book they might not stick with. My twelve-year-old son has heard me and my husband talking about this book and I think he is almost ready to give it a go, but of course I can't suggest that he read it...
Another fantastic book set in East Germany, 1961, beginning just as the wall goes up:
A Night Divided Jennifer Neilsen
More books by Anne Nesbet