7/22/08

The Black Canary for Timeslip Tuesday


This week's book for Timeslip Tuesday is The Black Canary, by Jane Louise Curry (2005, McElderry Books, 279pp, for middle grade readers). As usual, if you have a timeslip review of your own, from today or from years ago, please leave me a link and I'll add it to the post!

12 year old James had hoped for a pleasant summer at home in the states with his parents, a summer where music wasn't going to be front and center, the way it generally was. With his parents and his grandparents on both the black side of the family and the white all musicians, James is sick of the whole music thing, and wants to find an identity of his own.

But instead, James finds himself spending the summer in an apartment in London, while his mother is on tour. Where he did not want to be at all, and with music, once again, the focus of his parents' interests.

Woken the first night there by the sound of water running, James follows the sound down to the basement, where he discovers a shimmering lens of light--a portal back in time, to England in 1600. His journeys into the past become gradually longer, until after one trip he discovers, to his horror, that he has returned to the past of the present he left--his family hasn't gotten to London yet. So he passes through the portal again, hoping things will come out better, but this time, he can't find his way back. He is lost in Elizabethan England, where is he is pressed into the service of the Queen as one of her entertainers, the Children of the Chapel Royal.

The musical talents he had tried to avoid in his present make him a precious find to the masters of the Children. It is not just his singing voice that impresses--his dark skin makes him an exotic attraction, and he is dubbed "the Black Canary." Engrossed in the fascinating world of drama both on stage and in the intrigues of Elizabethan politics, James struggles to remember who he really is, and struggles as well with the fact that he really does love music.

It was rather refreshing to read a book featuring Elizabethan drama that does not mention Will Shakespeare--instead, we have Ben Jonson. Almost all of Curry's named character's are real people, and her knowledge of Elizabethan drama is evident. James' education as an Elizabethan musician are described in engrossing detail, although the engrossing part might be debatable. I happen to like books in which people start new schools and have to learn Latin so as to catch up with the other kids-- timeslipping provides the ultimate experience of new school anxiety. And I enjoy reading about people learning music, which we get a good bit of here.

I also found it interesting to read about a biracial boy travelling to an all white past*--although there were some Africans in Elizabethan England, they were few and far between.
"James was fascinated by everything, and at the same time uneasy. He wasn't sure why. He tried to think, but in that hubbub it was a while before he realized what he was seeing. At home, at least anywhere he went, he had never been in a next-to-all-white world, or even an all-white crowd, though a few Boston concert audiences had come close. Here he didn't see a face that wasn't white..." (pp 99-100).

"Edited to add seven years later--I am now thinking that this is problematic, and that Elizabethan England was much less monochrome than received wisdom would have us believe.   I also have doubts about James not having been much in all white, or near all white, spaces. There are still so many of these up in New England...."

James, trying to make sense of where he has found himself, is, in general, a sympathetically reflective character. I think timeslip stories must be a bit tricky to write in this regard. You wouldn't want your character just happily going with the flow--here I am in a different time la la la--but neither would you want to spend pages on worry, fear, will I ever get home, etc. I think Curry does rather well, in fact, better than most, with striking a balance of growing acceptance and constant anxiety. With his new life becoming increasingly engrossing, James grows "frightened that already the future where he belonged was slipping away...." (p 206). Will he stay to preform before the queen, or take the chance to escape from his masters and go home...

One minor note of complaint: the cover appears to show a sepia photograph of early twentieth century London. What's with this? There is no way you would know it was about Elizabethan England. It also features the common "truncated child" motif. Not to go too deeply into this, but the fact that the title covers James' mouth is probably deliberate and metaphorical as all get out.


*Incidentally, the first of my Timeslip Tuesday books, Don't Know Where, Don't Know When, also featured a black boy travelling back to the very white England of the first half of the 20th century. If I can find one more example, I'll have a Theme...

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