In Fred Hiatt’s new young-adult novel, “Nine Days,” a high school junior steals his mother’s credit card and runs away from home with a girl. The stunt may get him grounded until his 30th birthday, but this isn’t “Romeo and Juliet” redux. Ethan Wynkoop and his friend, Ti-Anna, are frantically trying to find Ti-Anna’s father, an exiled Chinese activist. When the two set off for Hong Kong, where he was last seen, they’re risking their lives — and an international incident.
Enlisting adults for help doesn’t occur to either teen: Ti-Anna’s mother is reeling from her husband’s disappearance, and Ethan, who feels like an afterthought to his absent-minded-professor parents, is used to taking care of himself.
But the odds are not even remotely in their favor. The two teenagers have no idea where to start looking, Ethan doesn’t speak Chinese and they’re not even sure if the Chinese government has Ti-Anna’s dad. Then, their first night in Hong Kong, someone searches their room, and it becomes apparent that Ti-Anna may also be in danger.
Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, based the character of Ti-Anna on Ti-Anna Wang, whose father, Wang Bingzhang, is a pro-democracy activist who has been imprisoned by the Chinese government for more than 10 years. The real Ti-Anna, now in her 20s, includes an afterword about her father and the continuing efforts to win his freedom.
The novel is written as a court-ordered assignment that Ethan has to fulfill after he’s brought back — battered and in a cast — from Hong Kong. “Now my parents and the judge think I should be remorseful,” he says. “I have to write how sorry I am, and if I’m not, I guess the judge could send me away.”
The trouble is, he’s not sorry for helping his friend or for wanting to save her dad. Financing the expedition with his mom’s credit card? Well, that he wishes he could have avoided.
Hiatt, who has reported for The Post from Tokyo and Moscow, offers middle-school-aged readers an appealing mix of action and friendship, with lessons about world events and human rights woven throughout. Ethan, bless him, talks more like a foreign correspondent from the 1950s than a teenager — using outdated phrases like “piddly” and “easy on the eyes.” But once he and Ti-Anna embark on their dangerous adventure, “Nine Days” takes off.
Zipp reviews books for The Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor.