It is all too easy, half a century on, to regard the coruscating terror of ordinary Americans during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a dry historical fact rather than a traumatic lived experience. The novelist Todd Strasser, who was a boy at the time, and whose family preparations for nuclear war included building a bomb shelter under their suburban ranch house, has evidently not forgotten the intensity of 1962. Memory here has given rise to a gripping and superbly constructed novel for sophisticated young readers ages 10 and older. In "Fallout" (Candlewick, 258 pages, $16.99), however, the Russians really do drop the bomb, and when the sirens wail, Scott Porter and his parents and little brother, rushing to their homemade bunker, are almost overwhelmed by neighbors frantic to gain refuge in the area's only fallout shelter.
There's not a word out of place in this evocative book, which toggles between the ever-more-dire predicament of the people in the overfilled bunker and the placid neighborhood during the weeks before the crisis. Mr. Strasser's skill at ratcheting up the tension is, if anything, exceeded by his ability to conjure midcentury ways of thinking—and a vanished culture in which aspirational fathers drank Dubonnet, beatniks were a present-tense curiosity, and children were amazed at the very idea of homosexuality.