For starters, The Only Thing to Fear isn’t a book for most tweens. Let’s get that out of the way. The episodes of graphic violence are not found in every chapter. But in many cases they are just too descriptive. An elderly woman is executed by being burned alive. Her corpse is displayed in the public square. Lots of Nazi soldiers are shot in the head, the bullet holes described. That’s too much for elementary students, and for most middle schoolers, too. I might feel good about handing this book to an 8th grader. Maybe.
So, why is that a big deal? Obviously, this isn’t a tween book, right? Well, the publisher is Scholastic, the company that publishes books by many popular tween authors, including Gordon Korman, Margaret Peterson Haddix, and Roland Smith. The reading level is 5.8 – well within the range of most tweens. The alternative history premise is appealing to tweens with active imaginations. In other words, there’s lots of room for confusion.
With the audience issue out of the way, let’s focus on the book.
In Caroline Tung Richmond’s The Only Thing to Fear, World War II has been over 80 years, and the Axis powers won. The war ended quickly after Germany and Japan unleashed an army of genetically-altered super-powered soldiers. Now Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler’s great-grandson, controls America east of the Mississippi River, and Japan occupies the west coast. Non-Germans provide manual labor for the German empire in factories and on farms.
Sixteen-year-old Zara St. James, lives with her Uncle Red on a small farm in Virginia. Zara works days as a janitor and servant at the local Nazi high school, while Uncle Red scratches-out a meager existence, struggling to meet the German crop quota. A loosely organized underground rebellion pesters, but never really harms the Nazis. Zara’s mom was killed in a crushing rebel defeat a few years ago, and the local chapter has been dormant ever since. Uncle Red is supposed to be the local rebel leader, but still haunted by the defeat that claimed his sister (Zara’s mom), his efforts consist of sneaking into a local Nazi fort to steal medical supplies. His accomplice – a beloved elderly nurse – is the only other rebel in town.
Of course, idealistic teen Zara wants to join the rebellion, and begs her uncle for an active role. Zara herself is a genetic anomaly; she can control the weather, and she can fly using wind gusts. Uncle Red forbids her from using her power. He knows that if captured, the Nazis will dissect her in the name of science. As the story progresses, Zara manifests a second power – the ability to create and throw electric pulses that can stun or even fry the target.
One night a regional rebellion leader shows-up at the St. James farm. He’s disappointed at Uncle Red’s meager resistance efforts, but thrilled at the prospect of recruiting Zara for their next big mission – a direct attack on the White House with Fuhrer Dieter as the target.
A budding romance between Zara and the Nazi colonel’s son is protracted and awkward, and serves almost no real purpose in the book. Zara is perfectly capable of carrying the plot without her Nazi crush always hanging around. And would you just kiss the girl already?
Unfortunately, The Only Thing to Fear is all plot and not much else. Our protagonist Zara is one-dimensional. She doesn’t grow or change or learn anything about herself or the world. She never even questions the source of her special abilities. Early in the first chapter she’s tempted to use her power on the Nazis. She’s just waiting for the right circumstances. The title – an obvious reference to the FDR speech – doesn’t really fit. The only person who deals with fear is Uncle Red, and he finally comes around. By the end of the book Zara has zapped several Nazis, and she doesn’t spend a lot of time soul searching. The transition from farm girl to cold-blooded killer seems just a little too smooth. After the big battle, Zara - the new face of the rebellion – joins the rebellion leaders in an underground hideout as they plan their next attacks. At least no one calls her Mockingjay.
Comparisons to The Hunger Games and Divergent are unavoidable. In those series, as well as The Only Thing to Fear, the heroine needs a mechanism to be thrust into rebellion. In The Hunger Games it was a lottery; in Divergent, a socially-unacceptable personality type. Both of those scenarios are inherent to the plot, and consistent with the premise. Unfortunately, The Only Thing to Fear fails on both of those measures. If we’re to use World War II as a starting point – and that’s the author’s choice – then the book’s world needs to follow that reality. People who can throw fire, create earthquakes, and spontaneously heal injuries just couldn’t be created in a 1940’s Nazi laboratory. And if the Nazi anomalies were lab-created, then how did Zara get her powers? (Was her Japanese father an anomaly himself? That possibility is never explored.) By the end of the book, we learn about a host of super-powered rebels. Who created them? And why was an untrained 16-year-old girl chosen for this critical mission instead of those seasoned soldiers?
As the plot progresses, The Only Thing to Fear becomes less and less like alternative history and more and more like an X-men comic book. Of course with the ability to throw lightning bolts and suck the air out of the room (really), Zara’s only worthy opponents are other super-powered mutants. POW!
Young readers may gobble-up this book, but for all the wrong reasons. Sure, some readers will enjoy the action scenes with mutant death battles, and reinvigorated Uncle Red shooting Nazis at point-blank range. But what’s America really like under Nazi control? I was excited to begin reading this book, and I was eager to explore Richmond’s alt-history America. Instead, I got another dystopian teen novel that just doesn’t measure-up to other entries in the genre.