I guess because I am like a kid in a candy store when I go to work, coupled with the recent plethora of great new books coming out every month, I never get the chance to go back and re-read a book I love. Since I started reviewing books I have been given a reason to make revisiting beloved books a priority and I am ecstatic to finally be re-reading and reviewing what I consider one of the all-time best children's books published post Harry Potter. The cover illustration by the amazing artist James Jean, which I think is magnificently haunting and magical and perfectly evocative of the story behind the picture. Notice the trainers on the otherwise historically dressed children...
Originally titled Gideon the Cutpurse, and now in paperback with a new title, Linda Buckley Archer's The Time Travelers interweaves the complexities of love between parents and children in the 21st century with the frequently harsh and unfair aspects of life among those not fortunate enough to be born into an aristocratic family in 18th century England. While it is an antigravity machine that rips Peter Shock and Kate Dyer apart from their families and place in time, leading and the children on a search throughout 1763 to find and repair the machine and return home, it is the stories of the characters on either side of this rent in time than make this book such a fascinating, emotionally compelling read.
In the 21st century we have the Shock and the Dyer families, previously unknown to each other until the day of December 16th when their lives are intertwined and changed dramatically. Peter, the son of high powered parents, finds himself let down again by his father's commitment to work over family. The last words he speaks to his father are, "I hate you." Margit, Peter's German au pair and family friend of the Dyers thinks a trip to their farm in Derbyshire might change his mood. Dr Dyer, a scientist at NCRDM in the department of cosmology, working on a Van der Graff generator with funding from NASA, is the father of six, and Kate the eldest. As Kate shows Peter around the farm, introducing him to various cows named after famous scientists, it is clear that her family life is the polar opposite of his. When Kate and Peter, along with Kate's loyal golden lab Molly, join Dr Dyer on a brief visit to his office they have a run-in with the Van der Graff generator and wake up, badly bruised and shaken, exactly the same spot geographically, but in the summer of 1763.
Left behind in the 21st century, the Shocks, the Dyers and the increasingly suspicisous Inspector Wheeler try to make sense of the children's disappearance as mysterious clues begin to emerge. Something about the nature of the time travel the children experienced allows them to "blur" between time periods, appearing as semi-solid apparitions in the 21st century for moments at a time, but unable to stay. When Dr Pirretti of arrives from the United States to oversee the disappearance of NASA property, she and Dr Dyer begin piecing things together and it seems that there is hope for the rescue of Kate and Peter after all.
Back in 1763, Kate and Peter's adventures are just beginning. As they slowly and painfully awake, a darkly disfigured man tells Peter he can find their contraption by going to the Black Lion Tavern in Covent Garden and asking for Blueskin, also known as The Tar Man. As he and Kate try to figure out where they are and what has happened to them, another stranger emerges and introduces himself as Gideon Seymour. Over the course of the next 350 pages, Gideon's complicated story unfolds and the children, traveling under the protection of Gideon, his employer, Mrs Byng and her brother, Sir Richard, make their way to London in the hopes of finding the machine and returning home. During this journey, Peter finds himself looking to Gideon, even though his is only twenty-three, as a father figure and questions his desire to return home. His life in the eighteenth century, although at times dangerous, expands exponentially. However, being a girl, Kate's world diminishes. Laced into a corset and wearing a gown almost as wide as she is tall, Kate finds herself often left behind and increasingly angry with the situation. While she takes comfort in playing big sister to Mrs Byng's youngest son, Jack, who suffers from the King's Evill, or scrofula (a form of tuberculosis) and is going to London for King George to lay hands on and hopefully cure him, Kate can think of nothing but returning home.
Kate and Peter are vivid characters who grow and change as the story progresses. Gideon, equally compelling, is a bit of a cypher at first, with his life story, and the reason for his current troubles and the tag "cutpurse," unfolding slowly over the course of the story. As the 1763 group journeys to London, a trip that will take three days by carriage and coach, they meet historical figures (Erasmus Darwin, Charles' grandfather and a renowned doctor in his own right, and Samuel Johnson as well as King George and Queen Charlotte) and seem to suffer one near disastrous (but believable) event after another, thanks in part to the blusterous character of Parson Ledbury, Mrs Byng's cousin, traveling with the group to serve as chaperone and transporter of a valuable diamond necklace of Mrs Byng's that needs repairing in London. During the run-ins with historical figures (most of whom Kate, being a history buff, has learned about but not Peter) it is fascinating to watch the children struggle with their knowledge of the future and how these people's lives will work out. Kate can't resist telling Erasmus that his grandson will make a scientific discovery that will change the world and she finds tears springing to her eyes as she plays with the infant prince, remembering how King George III will grow to dislike him and how the King himself will die, mad and alone.
Without giving too much more away, I can say that there is a great surprise for Kate and Peter when they fear all hope is lost and a climactic ending that perfectly sets up the next book in the trilogy, The Time Thief, which finds the wicked Tar Man in modern day London. The third and final book in the trilogy, Time Quake, the time machine has fallen into very dangerous hands, giving a British Lord the opportunity to change the course of the Revolutionary War!