• Grade Range: 5-8
• Adventure related title
• Paul B Janeczko
• The Dark Game
• Publisher: Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press
• 248 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-763-62915-1
• Awards: YALSA-ALA Excellence in Young Adult Nonfiction finalist
• Author’s website: http://www.paulbjaneczko.com/index.htm
Six self-contained chapters tell intriguing stories of spies and their craft, from the American Revolution through the Cold War. Janeczko makes the point that often, marginalized groups: women, African Americans, Native Americans and even one handicapped individual, made excellent spies, as bias prevented them from being perceived as either a threat or a resource.
While the chronological chapters are self-contained there are some overarching themes. Taken together the chapters tell a rough history of spying as it affected the United States from the Revolutionary War into the end of the 20th century. Janeczko traces the increasing professionalization of espionage as America moved from all amateur spies: including Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin and the amazing WWII double agent: Juan Pujol, to a trained force, schooled in combat, cyber-espionage, sabotage, survival skills, and codes and ciphers. While the professional training has lots of 007 appeal, it is the stories of the amateurs that capture the imagination, in part because they are a far more diverse group: Harriet Tubman and her 300 strong unit of African-American riverboat pilots and soldiers who rescued 800 slaves, an intrepid WWII agent Virginia Hall, who named her wooden leg Cuthbert, Choctaw code talkers, Rebel Rose the Confederate socialite spy and her opposite Van Lew the spinster who helped organize the daring behind-enemy-lines escape of 109 Union soldiers from Libby Prison.
The book is focused on spies associated with the United States; this includes double agents, Allies in both world wars and foreign saboteurs on U.S. soil. Of particular interest is the little known story of the extensive and effective sabotage carried out in the U.S. by German agents during World War I.
The organization of the book allows readers to dip in an out, reading about time periods or incidents of special interest. The text is enhanced by primary source photos and pictures of ciphers, which are a particular interest of Mr. Janeczko, (Top Secret: A Handbook of Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing, Candlewick 2004, Loads of Codes and Secret Ciphers, Simon & Schuster 1984). While most readers will be drawn to the book for the fun of it, the material is well researched enough to be useful in reports. The author’s enthusiasm and fascination with the topic comes through clearly.
The writing is plain and rather inelegant, but doesn’t detract from the compelling stories. Of course some information is missing or is debatable. After a fascinating account of the story behind the Zimmerman telegram: which precipitated U.S. entry into WWI, Janeczko repeats the assertion that “never before or since has so much turned upon the solution of a secret message”. The idea that U.S. troops were what turned the tide in WWI is a discredited theory. I could also wish there was more about the appalling Allen Dulles and the fact that, on his watch, undiscovered Russian moles sent thousands of CIA agents to their death and undercut U.S. espionage effectiveness for decades. But these are minor quibbles; overall The Dark Game is a fascinating, eye-opening and very appealing read for middle school kids.
Front matter: The Contents helpfully subdivides the six chapters into four named topics per chapter, giving readers a sense of what the chapters cover and allowing them to focus on topics or individuals of particular interest. An introduction explains the author’s historic interest in, and enthusiasm for, the subject. Back Matter: Source notes are broken down by chapter and quotes are attributed. An extensive bibliography is included. Photography credits are also broken down by chapter, making it easy to learn where an image came from.