When sixteen-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally time-travels via red balloon to 1988 East Berlin, she’s caught up in a conspiracy of history and magic. She meets members of an underground guild in East Berlin who use balloons and magic to help people escape over the Wall—but even to the balloon makers, Ellie’s time travel is a mystery. When it becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to change history, Ellie must risk everything—including her only way home—to stop the process.
*eARC courtesy of the publisher Albert Whitman & Company via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
As I’ve said before, I’m fascinated with time travel stories. It is such an interesting concept, that anyone can go back in time or travel to the future. Doctor Who, anyone? And who can resist The Girl With the Red Balloon? The synopsis already looks good. I was excited to get lost in Ellie’s world.
Eleanor “Ellie” Baum accidentally time traveled to 1988 East Berlin when she got hold of a red balloon that has magical powers. It is a crucial period in time where East and West Berlin are separated by the Wall. Where many go missing, suffered and died. Where many were trying to escape East Berlin. And some of them found the much-needed help to escape. By means of an organization who uses magical red balloons to transport the person holding it to the other side of the wall. Ellie should think that it is preposterous. But she didn’t. How can she explain why she’s in the past then? Besides, she believed it to be real. Her grandfather has been telling her stories about the red balloon who saved his life when she was young. But it puzzled the Council and the Runners how Ellie got hold of the balloon in the 21st century in the first place. It’s not supposed to happen. The balloon’s job is to transport someone on the other side of the wall, safely. Not travel through time. Things got more complicated when the guy who’s supposed to have the balloon turns up dead. Not only that, the Council and the balloon makers don’t have any idea how to bring Ellie back to the future, to her time. But they will do their best, they said. When bodies from different times of the future started turning up in East Berlin, it is obvious that someone is tweaking the magic of the red balloons. Who and why, that’s the question Ellie, with the help from newfound friends, Kai and Mitzi, have to found out. Will they succeed? And will Ellie be able to come home? Would she still want to, especially when she’s starting to fall in love with Kai?
I know from the very beginning that there will be magical touch into it and I’m looking forward to discovering how it will work. What I am not prepared though is the seriousness of it all and the somewhat darker aspect on this YA history and fantasy story. Talk of Holocaust, genocides, racism, oppression, death, and a whole lot more serious issues are present in this book. I know of the history, though not so much, so I have an inkling of how things are. Yet I’m still surprised upon reading how bad things had been. I’ve learned a lot reading this book and also it made me realized how fortunate I am not to go through that kind of nightmare. And it is sad how a lot of people had to, and for some, still going through it.
The story is told from 3 points of view. There’s Ellie, our determined and brave main character. A Jewish-American in a foreign country and speak only a little German. Her accidental time travel created wonder and confusion to the Council. It also made her life in danger as she doesn’t have legal papers to explain her presence in 1988 Germany. There’s also Kai, the Romani runner who makes sure that the balloon passenger will go safely on the other side of the wall. He ran away from his family in England to protect her little sister from people who want to take advantage of the talent she has. And lastly, Benno, Ellie’s German grandfather. His POV recounts his past upon leaving Berlin and living in the ghetto, one by one losing his family before finally coming back to the safe side of Berlin with the help of a little girl and her magical red balloon. I love how the characters are so diverse in this book. Ellie is not only American but also Jewish, Kai is a Romani, Benno is German. Add to that Mitzi, Kai and Ellie’s friend. She is a lesbian in the time and place where one is not tolerated. She is independent and has a really strong personality which I really admire. I would love to know more about her, as she seems to have a great story to tell. As you noticed, it is not short of diverse characters which made the story more appealing. The relationship between Kai, Ellie, and Mitzi are solid, they work well together. Perfect for the story and I totally enjoyed reading about them. The characters are also well-developed aside from Benno as his story wasn’t given that much highlight, which is disappointing as I was hoping to read more of him.
I particularly like the plot and the setting. Time traveling by use of a red balloon is already a unique choice. Add Berlin in the Cold War period and things got more intriguing, more compelling. I wonder if it will be as gripping if it’s in a different place and time. Things kinda slowed down throughout the middle but the latter part makes up for it though the ending appears to be rushed. I was hoping to know more about Aurora, one of the balloon makers. She and Benno are the ones who interest me the most. I also like the idea of the magic they presented, by using mathematical formulas and equations. It sounds fascinating.
The Girl With the Red Balloon is an engrossing story that will take you back in time where people doesn’t have the freedom to do as they please. A tale where magic and realism meet and create a great story of hope. The time travel component is executed really well and I can’t wait for the next book. There is a romance going on and I appreciate that it was not much of the focus. All in all, a bit dark than I expected yet an enthralling read.