Devil Darling Spy
Young Adult Fiction
Viking Books for Young Readers
January 21, 2020
... Sarah, the fearless heroine of Orphan Monster Spy, hunts a rogue German doctor in West Africa who might be a serial murderer. Still hiding in plain sight as "Ursula Haller," the Shirley Temple of Nazi high society, Sarah Goldstein gathers information for Captain Floyd at parties, and when he learns of a German doctor who went rogue in Central Africa, she wants to help him hunt the doctor down. Rumors say the doctor has discovered a tool of germ warfare known as "the Bleeding" that could wipe out whole nations. The journey begins as a thrilling adventure for Sarah but as they get closer to the doctor, and see more effects of "the Bleeding" in the communities they pass through, their trip turns from caper to nightmare. A biracial German/Senegalese girl who travels with them, a black French priest with a foul mouth, and the doctor's glamorous daughter round out the cast of this unbearably high-stakes thriller that pushes Sarah to face the worst humanity is capable of--and challenges her to find reasons to keep fighting. Publisher
Devil Darling Spy is a thrilling read for young adults but should not be thought of as a book focused on Africa, African subjects, or Africa’s historical realities. The book is a sequel to Killeen’s Orphan Monster Spy which was set in Nazi Germany and focused on the experiences of Sarah Goldstein, a young Jewish orphan who becomes a spy for the resistance. In this sequel, Sarah’s exploits once again begin in 1940’s Germany, then take her to Central Africa, via travel across the Sahara and Sahel. Sarah’s mission is to stop a plot by a German doctor to develop a virus locally known as “The Bleeding” (Ebola?) into a biological weapon that could be used by the Nazis to kill thousands. Readers should know that there are numerous references to the first book, and therefore much of the complexity of Sarah’s background and motivations will be lost if one is introduced to Sarah for the first time with this sequel.
Readers are a hundred pages into the book before Sarah encounters (voiceless) Amazigh individuals in a Saharan oasis, but readers will encounter racist terms and concepts of the period by page 14. There are only two individuals of African descent who will be a part of the action throughout; neither are developed fully as characters. The first is Claude, a black priest who has absorbed ideas of European superiority over Africans. The author also introduces the character of Clementine, described as a “Rhineland Bastard” of Senegalese and French parentage. Clementine is offered as a foil to Sarah. As well, Clementine’s presence seems to be meant to serve as an interlocutor/translator for the diverse African cultures and people Sarah will meet, as well as introducing Sarah to African history, particularly the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo by King Leopold. (One questions how a child born and raised in Germany would be able to serve in such a capacity….) Clementine does verbally resist the stereotypes and slurs hurled at her. Yet, while Clementine is intelligent and a match in every way for Sarah, Clementine’s character is not fully developed. She is used as a catalyst for Sarah becoming more aware of the parallels of violence committed by European empires colonizing the African continent with Nazi atrocities against Jewish peoples and others. But the details of this history are only alluded to in this book – if readers do not have such background knowledge or do not read the author’s note provided at the end of the book before reading the story, much of the subtle criticisms will be lost on both younger and older readers. The American public is still not broadly aware of the racist construction of “knowledge” about Africa, Africans, and their histories, nor have most moved beyond uncritical examination of such. Thus, readers’ latent knowledge will filter the numerous racist idioms (ex; “Neger,” Hottentot,” “dark continent,” “jungle,” “savages”), and racial contexts of the era and may absorb them as unproblematic.
Readers who identify with and are rooting for Clementine, hoping she will become an equal to Sarah in the mission will be disappointed. More could be said about this issue, but further comments would spoil the book’s ending.
The author, Mark Killeen, obviously has done some research on African history, and his intentions are to make his readers more aware of colonialism and its lasting impact – as evidenced in the Author’s Note. But this note comes as ‘too little too late’. A “reader’s guide” or forward that could preface such intents and provide greater context would have been much more appropriate. Thoughtful character development of at least one Congolese or other individual of African descent, and the centralization of that character -positively- in the story would also have aided Killeen’s intentions.
Lacking this, unfortunately, against the author’s professed intent, Africa once again becomes a backdrop for the actions of European characters, and individuals of African descent are marginalized.
Reviewed by Tavy Aherne, Ph.D. Indiana University
Published in Africa Access Review (January 28, 2021)
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