5.15.2009

The Lost Cities: A Drift House Voyage by Dale Peck, 385 pp RL 4


The Lost Cities: A Drift House Voyage by Dale Peck finds the Oakenfeld children back in New York City, at home with their parents. Nine months have passed since they were sent to live with their Uncle Farley in Eternity Bay, Canada, and summer vacation and a visit to Drift House awaits them. Bickering as usual, Susan and Charles are returning home when their doorman presents them with a package that was left for them. Wrapped inside an oilskin and addressed to, "Susie and Charlie-o-o-Oakenfeld" they find a hefty book with the words, The Lost Cities, embossed on the cover and an empty space below where something else must have once been affixed. The book, the missing amulet from the cover and the mysteries held inside propel the story and the Oakenfelds, minus Murray who intentionally catches chickenpox and is forced to stay home, back onto the Sea of Time and into the past.


In Drift House the story takes place only on the Sea of Time with brief visits to the Island of the Past, which only allows one member of each species on its surface at a time and serves as a warehouse of sorts for living things that have become extinct. In The Lost Cities, the children find themselves visiting the past, specifically cities and civilizations that have vanished without a trace. When the future-telling fresco on the drawing room wall shows them a panorama of places like Atlantis, Easter Island, Pompeii, Troy, Machu Picchu, Hiroshima, the Tower of Babel, the settlements of Roanoke and Osterbygd and, finally, the Twin Towers in New York City, Susan and Charles become apprehensive about the journey they had been looking forward to. Things get worse when the book of The Lost Cities, which has been and endless source of bickering between the siblings since it arrived, exerts a strange force over Charles, enticing him to run off into the woods near Drift House to take a look at it, along with a spying President Wilson. When a temporal storm washes Drift House out onto the Sea of Time while they are on land and high up in a tree, Charles and President Wilson follow a stream of water left behind from the squall and walk through time to Greenland, 1483.

What follows is an extraordinary story that stretches from the stony hills of fifteenth century Greenland where the palindromic Qaanaaq tribe and the mysterious Wanderer of Days live to the ancient city of Babel and a murky ceremonial room underneath the famous ziggurat on the night of its destruction. In between there are megalomaniacal Vikings, a mirror book, a hollow Tombstone radio that serves as a hiding place for Susan and Marie-Antoinette (the Time Pirate Captain Quioin's parrot, whom President Wilson convinced to join him on Drift House and whom we also learn in this book is an ara tricolor, or the extinct Cuban macaw) an excursion inside the Trojan Horse reminiscent of Susan's travels inside the mouth of Frejo the whale and a moment on one of the airplanes that crashed into the Twin Towers on 9/11. I have to confess that when I watch movies or read books that have time travel as part of the plot I tend to tune out the particularities of how it all works or else I end up confusing myself hopelessly. Murray and his possible status of Accursed Returner, a person who never dies but lives out lives in many time periods non-consecutively was a bit confusing to me while reading Drift House, so I stopped trying to figure out how he could be a child and childlike before entering the dumbwaiter and adult-like after, not to mention how his alter-ego, ten year old Mario, could exist in the same place as five year old Murray. So I stopped worrying about it. Lost Cities is no exception, however Peck does have some pretty nice ways of describing time and humanity that make things a little less foggy. At one point in the book the Wanderer of Days, who is piloting the plane that is destined for the Twin Towers, explains to Susan that "time is like a string. It has a beginning and an end. Only one beginning, and only one end, and only one line leading between them. Like a skein of yarn, no matter how tangled the track of time grows, there is still only one line, and no deviation from it, ever." Yet, the old man goes on to explain, there is a terrible "desire carried in the hearts of men since the dawn of creation... the eternal human desire to cheat time, to get to the end without going through the middle." This desire, when concentrated, forms a "Time Jetty," which acts like a bulldozer plowing through a maze to get from the entrance directly to the exit rather than following the winding path laid out. When the Time Jetty "passes through time's true path, it obliterates it." Thus, the lost cities, the disappeared civilizations mentioned earlier, are the victims of Time Jetties that have carried them from their beginnings directly to their ends. And, it seems, New York City and all its inhabitants are in the path of the next Time Jetty about to strike.

While doing research for this review I read the opinions of other reviewers, one of whom found this book redundant and not worth reading when there is so much other young adult fantasy on the shelves. I feel the exact opposite. With his Drift House books, of which I fervently hope there will be one more to wrap the story of the Oakenfelds, especially Murray, I feel like Dale Peck has, above all else, brought three very human, compelling child characters into the world and given them fascinating story lines to play themselves out on. As an adult reader I did feel a glimmer of recognition and wonder from the days when I was a child reading fantasy and I know that, along with Meg Murray, the eleven year old me would have held Susan Oakenfeld in high esteem if I had had the chance to encounter her back then. And I know the eleven year old me definitely would have been entranced by five year old Murray and especially the brave but ultimately sad ten year old Mario who does not know yet that he will find a way to return to his younger self, to his life as Murray with his mother and father. I think that the eleven year old me would have even like Charles. When we choose books for our children, help them choose books or read the books they are reading, we have to remember that we have a different perspective and taste when it comes to books. Even if we, as adults, enjoy the increasingly remarkably well written world of Young Adult Literature, we must keep in mind that we read for different emotions, events and resolutions than our children. That said, I hope you all go out and read these books and start some discussions with your children, whether it's about the actual historical Lost Cities or human desire, or the passing of time.

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