The Second Son

by Jonathan Rabb

Reviewed by college student Stacey Krepel

The Second Son is the tale of a father’s quest for his missing son. The story takes place in Spain in the early 1930s at the beginning of a rebellion that would soon escalate into the Spanish Civil war; at the same time, fascist Germany is in the beginning stages of planning the eradication of its Jewish population. The smooth blending of facts and fiction, along with the unforgettable details and characters, recommend this novel to anyone interested in historical tales with a fictional twist, spy/detective stories, or mysteries.

With unbreakable resolve, Hoffner storms the city of Barcelona to find his son, who disappeared shortly after the violence erupted. He is soon thrown in with skeptical anarchists, low-lying Communists, spies, and the fiery yet collected female physician Mila Piera. With help from his new acquaintances, and of course his inevitable love-interest, he navigates through the now war-stricken country, seeking his son with only a list of names for a hint as to what may have happened to him.

Jonathan Rabb's prose shows he really understands how people read and perceive literature. He paints so crystal-clear a picture that the reader loses the feeling of being a reader and instead becomes the character - seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, breathing the same air. In a passage about one encounter between two characters, he writes, “Hoffner might have taken her for one of those sideshow curiosities ... It might have been bloating or bone disintegration, but whatever the reason, the addict was no less recognizable.... Her head teetered from side to side but thus far remained on her neck ... they stepped past her to the stairs.” Everything about this woman and this situation screams ‘danger,’ and we continue to hungrily turn pages, wanting to know how Hoffner will escape this new horror. In The Second Son, Rabb recreates a world that will bring you out of the twenty-first century and back to the 1930s to join a father trying to find and save his son. (2011, 304 pages)

More about The Second Son at Powell's Books or

Other novels set during the Spanish Civil War:

Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom (2006), about a British spy in Madrid during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Review or more info at Powell's Books

Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel (2003), about a Spanish police officer in 1939 Madrid who finds the body of his murdered best friend and sets out to find the killer; #1 in the Carlos Tejada mystery series. More info

The Mule by Juan Eslava Galan (2003 in the original Spanish; first English edition 2008), about a muleteer whose chief objective during the Spanish Civil War is to protect his mule. More info

Nonfiction about the Spanish Civil War:

The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Graham (2005), an overview of the Spanish Civil War. More info

The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan (1943), about the war's origins. More info

The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge by Paul Preston (2007), about the war. More info


Newsreel images from the Spanish Civil War at Blip TV

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