“Which Side Are You On?”

Esther Broner’s novel of the 1960s.

In 1965, I took my teen-aged daughter on a special train to Montgomery, Alabama to meet the civil rights workers who were marching from Selma. We and the other passengers (mostly women) lustily sang “We Shall Overcome,” and union songs: “Which Side are You On,” and “Joe Hill.” The train trip home to D.C. was sobering. We were warned to douse our lights for fear of snipers. The following morning we learned that Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit mother of five had been assassinated, ferrying marchers back to Selma. In the car of the Klansmen who shot her was an informant from the F.B.I.

For those of us who were activists in the sixties and seventies, The Red Squad by E.M. Broner (Pantheon, $24) will be an affirmation of our memories. For others, perhaps too young to remember, the book will be an education. Broner limns a world of 1960s academia: romantic, comic, and above all, political. She cleverly cuts back and forth between the turbulent protests of the ’60s and ’70s to the story’s present, the year of 9/11 and America’s loss of innocence.

In 2000, Anka Papas, the book’s protagonist and now a professor, receives an anonymous package containing an entire file kept on her political and personal life during the 1960s by a group called “The Red Squad.” Anka muses, “Everything I think about the present and the past will be dictated by the enclosures of that envelope. Why was it sent to me? A reminder, a threat?” To solve the mystery, Anka is suddenly plunged back into her grad student days, laboring in what they called “The Bullpen,” with assorted colleagues whose lives interestingly complicate the novel. They include a young priest seeking release from his church, a young Zionist longing to make aliya, a man seemingly overwhelmed by the responsibilities of marriage and family, and an activist gay poet who “disappears” after his arrest. Anka teaches Freshman Comp to Detroit’s inner city students, whose life stories she establishes as the course’s curriculum. The students and their stories add even more texture to what might have been a narrower focus.

Broner evokes a time, not so long ago, of furtive ferrying of “draft dodgers” to Canada, of the underground railway for seekers of safe abortions, of harassment of protesters by police and battles with both a conservative university administration and a conservative school newspaper editor. Through spot-on description she recreates an already dying Detroit, a city riven by expressways that divide neighborhood from neighborhood and decimated by “White Flight,” a city energized only by the emergence of Motown music.

At the book’s perhaps too neat conclusion, the characters all gather at the reemergence of their “disappeared” colleague, gone underground for decades because of his political activities. There they solve the mystery at the book’s core, the identity of the spy in their midst and his reasons for betraying them all. The Red Squad may be a slim volume, but it sports a remarkably sturdy spine. Pun absolutely intended.

Faye Moskowitz is a professor of creative writing and Jewish-American literature at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.