CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 11 . . . . January 23, 2009
Thirteen-year-old Darby is spending the summer with her grandparents in Charlottetown, (lovingly described here, complete with colourful gingerbread houses), while her parents renovate their Toronto home. Gabe, a mysterious boy who speaks quite formally, invites Darby through a window as a storm hits, and she finds herself in an Inuit campsite of pre-history Canada as the family finds the caribou herd that will sustain their lives for another season. Gabe also draws her back in time to an Irish immigrant coffin ship and to a Scottish ship docking in Charlottetown in 1875. On both of these ships, Darby sees members of her own family — her grandfather's great grandfather and her grandmother's great grandmother. Gabe's visions of the past help Darby to understand her family and their precarious and tragic background. Shawnie, a neighbour of her grandparents and an Inuit from Rankin Inlet, is the third piece of the puzzle, with the Scots and the Irish, that comprises the history of PEI. Shawnie constructs an inuksuk with the rocks that Darby has brought back from her time travels. Over the summer Darby grows to love her grandparents as she helps Nan to keep track of Gramps, who is gradually slipping into Alzheimer's disease. Darby's visions/timeslips are explained as migraines. When Gramps dies of a heart attack, Darby's parents fly in for the funeral and to pick her up, and Darby promises to visit Nan again next summer.
Darby is a great character — initially too cool and cynical about the slow pace of provincial Charlottetown, she is determined to master her new skateboard and is embarrassed by her weird grandparents. As she gains understanding through sad and horrific visions of history, Darby matures enough to understand her grandmother's strength and begins to help her deal with Gramps. In the end, Darby can even graciously accept that her own mother is pregnant.
Gabe, the time traveller, who appears as a different character is each timeslip, is kind, generous and insistent that Darby merely listen, watch and learn. Although he appears ghost-like, perhaps it is his Acadian French family that is returning to Charlottetown from New Orleans to renovate Gramp's family's old ramshackle home.
Nan and Gramps are authentic characters, late seventies in age, firm, yet loving in their approach to Darby. Gramp's Alzheimer's is thoughtfully portrayed, complete with the odd "goddamn", as is Nan's determination to keep him at home as long as she can. Less clear is why Darby's parents haven't clued her in on Gramp's illness or on the arrival of a sibling, which seems unrealistic.
The other odd glitch in this novel is the seeming importance of the summer journal, which just peters out to nothing. Darby doesn't keep track of her summer activities. Rather, she does research about her family's history at the local library.
Gabe and the device of the window in the crumbling building in the backyard of Gramp's family's old house are believable. Vivid descriptions of the past, complete with authentic language and behaviour, will intrigue the intended reader.
Both boys and girls in late elementary school will enjoy this timeslip fantasy built on the history of Canada's people and past.
Joan Marshall is a Winnipeg, MB, bookseller.
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