Alternate histories fascinate me. Most of them, it seems, involve a war going a different direction than it actually did, and it’s usually the Nazis winning World War II. I think for many readers, both adult and teen, World War II feels like the easy war – easy to understand why it was fought, easy to know who were the bad guys and who were the good guys. It’s also still firmly lodged within our collective memory as Americans. That other war we fought with clearly recognized “good guys” and “bad guys” – the Civil War – happened so long ago that no one who remembers it is still alive. Not so World War II. Our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents fought in it, or remember growing up as it raged around them. This societal memory is less prominent in the generation following mine (the ones who are teens now), but it’s still there.
I mention all this as a preface to my review of The Only Thing to Fear, Caroline Tung Richmond’s debut novel, because I think it’s important when considering the book’s accessibility. Alternate histories can often be niche reads, requiring knowledge of some lesser-known bit of history to fully understand. But when you write a book with the premise that the Nazis won World War II, your readers are right there with you, no explanation necessary. You have ready-made antagonists and no need to convince the reader they’re really the bad guys. And for teens who dig history, this is a question they’ve probably posed to themselves before: What would our world look like if the Nazis really did win the war?
In Richmond’s story, they had help: genetically engineered super soldiers. The Nazis now control the eastern United States and the Japanese control the western United States. Zara, our protagonist, lives in Nazi-controlled territory. Her father was Japanese and her mother white, and she’s hated by pretty much everyone around her. The white Americans hate her because the Japanese are allied with the Germans, and the Nazis hate her because she’s of mixed race. Zara also has a secret: she has abilities like the super soldiers do, and if the Nazis discovered it…well, it wouldn’t end well for her.
Zara’s extended family are part of a rebellion trying to free the United States of Nazi occupation, and that’s where the focus of the book lies. Zara wants to help out, but her uncle keeps telling her she’s too young and inexperienced. Of course, that doesn’t stop her from getting involved anyway.
Readers who have read some alternate history before may be bored by the plot of the book; it doesn’t go anyplace very new. The super soldiers could have been interesting, but they don’t really add much to the story beyond the reason for the Nazis winning the war in the first place. Zara’s experience as a half-Japanese, half-white teenager caught in this new, awful world is more compelling, and it – along with the rebellion – creates plenty of tension on its own without the super soldier angle.
For readers new to the concept of alternate history, though, this is a good entry point. The premise is easy to grasp and it’s got lots of broadly appealing elements: action, Fighting the Man, a dash of romance. It’s not the best example of alternate history I’ve ever read, but Richmond’s answer to the “What if?” question is interesting and worth a read for teens who have ever considered it themselves.
Book borrowed from my library.