The Enemy, Detroit 1954: A Starter Lesson Guide

The pictures are a little grainy with strange stuff in the background. The characters wear old-fashioned clothes and talk funny. Their stories require understanding of situations that readers have never encountered before.

It isn’t that kids don’t like historical fiction; it’s just that sometimes they have trouble seeing themselves in the picture. The pictures are so far away and are populated by folks who don’t always look like them.

Sixty years after her dad build the Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder sat down to write her famous series. Growing up in 1950s Detroit during the era when cars were growing fins, I galloped through every one with wonder and delight. Sixty years later as I sat to write about the Cold War era, I needed to keep in mind that air raid sirens and poodle skirts are about as relatable to 2017 readers as a butter churn was to me when I was a kid.

I knew in writing The Enemy, Detroit 1954, that I would have to catch readers with the story. To fully enjoy the story, however, it helps to understand some of the strange stuff in the background. Since stories are made up of a setting, characters and their dilemmas, and a plot, I came up with a little introductory lesson for teaching The Enemy.

First: Show the book trailer. Here’s a link: The Enemy, Detroit 1954

The background music was a Number 1 hit in 1954, Mr. Sandman, sung by the Chordettes. The images I have borrowed from the internet, but I’m not selling them, just sharing for educational purposes.  When your 5 Minute Experts get busy with research, they’ll probably find better ones. The trailer was put together by Michael Salinger (thanks!).

Note: Some of the images may not make much sense to today’s reading, so let’s see if we can help that.

In the back of the book is an extensive bibliography that may also be helpful in building understanding. Please put it to good use!


Create a classroom of 5 Minute Experts:

Materials: devices for research.

  • Print the list of Hot Topics  (below) from the book. Topics include: Political policies, Race, Armed Services, Immigration, Autos, Media, Safety, Freedoms and the Legislature.
  • Cut the list into little slips of paper.
  • Have students pair up.
  • Give each pair a topic on a slip of paper.
  • Set your timer.
  • Students have 5 minutes to research and become a 5 Minute Expert on their topic. (hint: you are in charge of the clock, in case it takes more time)
  • Ask the pairs to make a three (or more) bullet point list of facts about their topics.
  • Instruct students to hold onto their info.

The Enemy: Hot Topics

Political policies: What was the Cold War about? Who was involved?

Race:   What happened with school segregation in 1954

Armed Services: What is PTSD? How does it impact soldiers returning from war?

Immigration: Were there quotas for immigrants after WWII?

Autos:   What was special about the Detroit auto show in 1954?

Immigration: Why might an immigrant have a tattoo of a number on her arm?

Political policies: What are Loyalty Oaths (in the 50s)

Political policies: What was the House Committee on Un-American Activities?

Safety:   Why were there air raid drills in schools? How did they work? Can you find a recording of the Chrysler Air Raid Siren?

Media:   Who was Edward R. Murrow? What was his relationship to Senator Joseph McCarthy?

Legislature:   Who was Senator Joseph McCarthy? Why was he important?

Race:   What was significant about the 761 Tank Battalion in Europe during WWII?

Freedoms:   Was there book banning in 1954? Why?


But, if I speak up, I won’t have any friends left!

Marjorie is a sixth grade white girl whose family immigrated to the U.S. when ships still had sails. However, she has a dilemma that is shared by all gender categories and family backgrounds. Something is nagging at her. An injustice. Can she find it in herself to say or do something about it?

Ask students to turn and talk.

Ask: Has there ever been a time in their lives when they knew they should say something, but they were afraid of speaking up?

Give students 5-7 minutes to share their stories with a partner.

Make sure everyone has a chance to be heard by a partner.

Reiterate that this is Marjorie’s problem in the book.

Even though the story happened a long time ago, can the students identify with her dilemma?


Here is a synopsis of the plot (without any spoilers!). Read the synopsis and invite your 5 Minute Experts to explain their research to their classmates, providing images and recordings when possible. If you are doing the book as a read aloud, shared or guided reading, or if the kids are reading on their own, this overview will help by providing background information.  There are more plot overviews available online.

A synopsis of The Enemy, Detroit 1954 

1954 is during the period of time known as the Cold War era. What was the Cold War about? Who is our expert?

The protagonist is Marjorie. She is in sixth grade at an all white school in the suburbs of Detroit. Who is our expert on school segregation in 1954?

Schools weren’t the only institutions that were segregated. So was the Army. Who is an expert on the 761st Tank Battalion?

The main character lives with her parents, her younger sister, and a teenaged “brother,” Frank. Both Marjorie’s and Frank’s father served in WWII. Can someone tell me what we now call PTSD is all about? How might it affect returning soldiers?

A new girl comes to Marjorie’s class. Her teacher says Inga (the new girl) is an immigrant from Canada, but she speaks German. There are a lot of immigrants in Marjorie’s neighborhood. Who is the expert on immigration after WWII? Why were people trying to get to America?

The new girl has to share a desk with Marjorie because their classroom is so overcrowded. This is due to what was known as the baby boom. Who is an expert on that?

Periodically, students at Marjorie’s school have air raid drills. Why was that? How did they work? Experts? Did you find a recording?

Two women in Marjorie’s neighborhood have numbers tattooed on their arms. Who is the expert on that? Why would that be?

Marjorie and her best friend Bernadette like to visit the library, but they are not allowed into the adult section. One day they find a cart of adult books hidden in the children’s section. Expert: What do we know about book banning in the 1950s?

Senator Joseph McCarthy was responsible for banning the books. Many people were afraid of him. What else is he known for? Experts?

Is there an expert who can fill us in a little more on the House Committee on Un-American Activities?

Every night on television, her father watches the news and a newscaster by the name of Edward R. Murrow? Expert, who is he? What was his relationship to Senator McCarthy?

Marjorie’s father, her teacher, and local librarians, among others have had to sign loyalty oaths. What were those about in the 1950s, experts?

Marjorie and her family attend the 1954 Detroit Auto Show. Why was the auto show held in Detroit? Experts, what was significant about that show, that year? Did you find pictures of some of the new cars?

Finally, show the book trailer again. Invite comments.

Books today compete for kids’ attention with Taylor Swift on YouTube, Star Wars trailers, and the latest game releases. Kids can still get excited about history, but sometimes they need a hand through the door into the fascinating world of yesterday. Hope this lesson helps. Have fun.

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