Secrets and Lies

Secrets and Lies

Children’s Books

“The lessons of the Cold War, once consigned to the history books and to the memories of aging spies, suddenly seemed shockingly relevant,” Marc Favreau writes about the discovery of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Too true, and SPIES: The Secret Showdown Between America and Russia (Little, Brown, 306 pp., $17.99; ages 12 and up), his terse Y.A. account of the silent war of Soviet-American espionage, does an excellent job of introducing that story of danger, sacrifice and ingenuity to a new generation of readers.

In each chapter, Favreau (“Crash,” “A People’s History of World War II”) cleverly uses a different figure to illuminate a new sphere in the conflict. Elizabeth Bentley, a Communist spy with “impeccable Yankee credentials,” turned evidence against her contacts. Her story launches a discussion of HUAC and McCarthyism. William Harvey, C.I.A. chief in Berlin in the 1950s, directed the drilling of a tunnel beneath the border of East and West Germany, allowing the C.I.A. to tap Soviet communication cables. The story of that clandestine project, “Harvey’s Hole,” lets the author talk about the Berlin Wall and the beleaguered city’s division.

The heart-stopping narrative of the U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, shot out of the sky over Russian territory and then used as a chit of exchange by Khrushchev, illustrates both the diplomatic struggles of the Cold War and the international race for stratospheric surveillance. The double agent Oleg Gordievsky helped defuse the 1983 “Able Archer” showdown, which almost saw the world go up in flames as Moscow brass responded to a NATO nuclear exercise as if it were a real preparation for all-out war. Gordievsky’s chapter also includes a tense description of his exfiltration from the U.S.S.R. once it was clear to his Soviet bosses that he’d been leaking for years. By centering each chapter on an individual’s story and its context like this, Favreau touches on the whole sweep of Cold War history, from the slamming down of the Iron Curtain to the fall of the Berlin Wall four decades later. (Back matter recounts Russian-American espionage since then, ending with the recent trial of Maria Butina.)

Favreau’s style is clear and unadorned, leaving ornament to his sources. As the pilot Powers enters a Moscow courtroom to face a Soviet show trial, for example, he spots his parents, who raised him in a Virginia home without electricity or running water: “Neither of my parents had ever been outside the United States before. They looked so alone, so alien in that strange land, that I choked up.” In another section, the double agent George Blake describes the horrific scenes of American bombing in North Korean villages that led him finally to betray the capitalist West. Details like this will engage even readers who might otherwise find the sheer scope of historical events confusing. Favreau is sparing with these novelistic moments, given the need to fly from shifting Soviet alliances in World War II to perestroika, but they ground the narrative.

Consider the places we discover surveillance bugs and sensitive documents can be hidden: a baby carriage, a matchbook behind a radiator, the Great Seal of the United States, a pumpkin, a fake log, or taped inside a pair of pants. High jinks like this suggest the hauntingly puerile dimension of real spycraft, a tit-for-tat game played with nations and lives. Favreau captures both those moments when espionage seems like futile, even juvenile one-upmanship (a surprising number of intel coups have been ruined by moles) — and also those few moments when the fates of two nations, and perhaps the world, were changed by the right word scratched in chalk in a park.

At a time when we’re entangled in a new escalation of cyberespionage with Russia, “Spies” provides a concise history of these national antagonisms for young readers, reminding them of the lengths people went to in the past to protect secrets — and to betray them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *