A Year Without Autumn, written by Liz Kessler, 294 pp, MIDDLE GRADE
A YEAR WITHOUT AUTUMN is now in PAPERBACK!!
Liz Kessler is the author of the very popular Emily Windsnap series of books about a twelve year old girl who lives on a boat with her mother. When Emily takes swimming lessons she discovers she is half-mermaid and her legs turn into a tail when she is underwater. Kessler is also three books into her Philippa Fisher series in which an eleven year old girl who's life is pretty miserable and gets worse for a time when she is sent a god-mother in training who has an attitude problem. Based on this, you might think that Kessler's newest book, A Year Without Autumn, about a quiet, order loving girl who takes a rickety old elevator to her friend's house and finds herself a year to the day in the future might be a playful comedy of errors as Jenni tries to figure out what has happened. And it easily and enjoyably could have been that book, much like Wendy Mass's wonderful Eleven Birthdays. However, Kessler makes a bold choice and chooses to tell a different story, one that I think will really appeal to older readers who are reaching the age where, while they may not have totally developed a sense of empathy for the difficulties and suffering of others, are beginning to take an interest in it. Also, once the story takes off, about fifty pages into the book, A Year Without Autumn reads like a roller coaster ride with breathtaking ups and downs and a climax that jumps the tracks on the way to an ultimately happy ending.
Jenni Green is twelve, her little brother Craig is five and her mother is eight months pregnant. Her math teacher father is an aspiring writer in his spare time and he is affectionate and loving towards his wife and children. The Green family thrives on order and familiarity, which is evident in the way that Jenni describes their annual end-of-the-summer vacation at their timeshare in River Village. While Jenni loves her family and is excited for the arrival of her new sibling, she is most excited to be spending the week with her best friend and polar opposite, Autumn Leonard. Autumn's mother runs a gallery and her father, a painter, is just gaining fame (and fortune) for his work. Autumn and her family are creative, loud, messy and full of energy, which is usually a good thing. When school stars in the fall the girls will be attending different middle schools, Jenni the local school and Autumn the magnet arts middle school in the next town over, so the two want to maximize their time together at River Village. Jenni knows that she and Autumn are very different and often wonders why their friendship works. But, she also knows that she often feels like Autumn's other half - together they make a whole. She admires Autumn's differences and even lets herself venture into new and sometimes frightening territory with Autumn as her guide. And, while she sometimes wonders what Autumn sees in her, she never doubts the solidity of their bond. This becomes especially meaningful as the story unfolds.
At the welcome meeting led by Mr Barraclough, the longtime manager of River Village, the Greens and the Leonards reconnect and the adults and kids plan their activities for the week, with horseback riding for Jenni and Autumn first on the list, despite Jenni's reservations about the activity. The next day, as Jenni heads over to the Leonard's condo in the oldest, fanciest building at River Village, she sees Mr Barraclough working on the long dormant, ancient elevator and decides to give it a try. When she reaches the second floor and knocks on 210, the Leonard's apartment, she is stunned to see an older woman at the door and no sign of the Leonards anywhere. A confusing half-conversation ensues as Jenni tries to make sense of this change and the woman grows increasingly suspicious her story, thinking Jenni is playing a prank on her. Mystified, Jenni learns from a neighbor that the Leonards are in a different condo. The Autumn who answers the door is a shadow of the vibrant girl Jenni knew, and her mother is even more changed. Jenni learns that Mr Leonard is out at the bar, where he spends most of his time, according to Autumn. Autumn's younger brother Mikey is nowhere to be seen and Jenni's inquiries after him get her an astonished and hurt reply from Autumn. A visit to the bathroom reveals even more odd changes when Jenni looks in the mirror and sees her long, curly hair that her parents wouldn't let her cut, has been shorn and her clothes seem to be too tight on her. Jenni heads back to her own condo where she finds her mother out, her father frantically tidying the condo to avoid her wrath, which is very unlike Mrs Green, and a baby sister crying in the other room.
Eventually and with great difficulty and pain to others, Jenni pieces together the events of the last year. When she didn't show up to go horseback riding with Autumn, she convinced Mikey to go with her. A series of missteps, bad decisions and unfortunate delays left Mikey in the hospital and in a coma he was unlikely to recover from. The accident has taken a huge toll on the Leonards and the Greens as well. The accident has left Mrs Green fearful and overly protective of her children, which in turn takes a toll on her once happy marriage. As Jenni rides the elevator again and again, two years, then three years then four years into the future she sees both their families and her friendship with Autumn fall apart. As Jenni pieces together the events that led to the accident, she revisits the woman now inhabiting the Leonard's old condo. Mrs Smith, it turns out, rode in that same elevator many years ago when she was fourteen and lost a year of memories as well as the love of her life as a result. Reluctantly at first, she shares her story with Jenni and tries to help her to cope with the changes and the loss. When Mrs Smith entered the story, I breathes a sigh of relief, thinking, "Ok, now and adult in the know is involved and Jenni won't have to solve this horrible, tragic mess on her own." Then, for a brief second I thought, "That's too bad, though. That's how it always happens in these books - an adult comes along and makes it all better." Thus, I was extremely please as I read on and found that Mrs Smith was not a person who was going to step in and fix things for Jenni. She herself was a flawed character who had made the best she could of a life with a lost year. To me, losing a year didn't seem like such a big deal initially, especially when you are a teenager - I would have gladly lost a handful of those years myself - but, that is part of the beauty of Kessler's story. Losing a year has huge repercussions and Kessler illustrates that in both Jenni and Mrs Smith's lives wonderfully.
Consider this a spoiler alert as I am about to talk a bit about that climax that jumps the tracks! Through her elevator rides into the future, Jenni figures out the chain of events that led to Mikey's accident and the severity of his injury. When she manages to go back in time to the day of the accident, she thinks that showing up for horseback riding is enough, but fate has other plans. Jenni intervenes at every possible point but still she cannot keep the accident from happening, although she can make it happen in a slightly different way. Desperate to save her best friend, her friend's family and her own family from disintegration, Jenni says and does things that she never would have considered before and she is able to twist events just enough to ensure the happy ending that I adore in a kid's book. However, Kessler had my heart in my throat for quite a while, there. I have no doubt that readers who enjoy real life girl stories (even though there is a bit of magic and time travel in A Year Without Autumn) will dive into this book and not put it down until the last page.