3/10/09

Jessamy, for Timeslip Tuesday

Today's Timeslip Tuesday book is Jessamy, by Barbara Sleigh (1967, 246 pages of large type, middle grade). Peter shared a touching story about this book over at his blog, Collecting Children's Books, this past Sunday, and since I am lucky enough to have a copy, it seemed like a good time to feature it here (especially since it is one of my favorite timeslip stories).

Jessamy's lonely life is spent being shunted between two aunts, one in school time, one for vacations. Neither particularly wants her. So when Aunt Maggie, the vacation aunt, breaks the news to her that her own children have whooping cough, and that Jessamy will have to stay elsewhere, she is not particularly disappointed. Especially when the elsewhere turns out to be an old house, empty except for a caretaker and the memories the house still holds of the children who once lived there. While exploring the house, Jessamy's attention is caught by a tall cupboard in the old nursery. Opening the door, she finds the measuring marks of those children, with their names written next to them. And one of the names is her own.

That night, Jessamy can't sleep for wondering if she really saw her own name. Quietly she goes back upstairs, opens the cupboard...and finds that she has gone back in time, to 1914, and that she has just fallen from a tree, hurting her head badly (nicely smoothing out for her the difficulties concomitant with time travel). Here she has another aunt, the newly hired cook, who (for a change) is an aunt who loves her, and, in an equally pleasant turn of events, she has the companionship of the children of the house. It is for the most part a happy house. It is true, Fanny, the girl closest to Jessamy's own age, resents the intrusion of the cook's niece, but Kit, the youngest boy, soon becomes her close friend. For Jessamy, lonely no longer, the past seems like an awfully nice place to be.

Except for one thing. 1914, as Jessamy realizes, is not the best year to visit to the past. World War I has started, Harry, the eldest son of the house has left school to enlist, quarreling with his grandfather and storming off in the night, seemingly taking with him his grandfather's precious medieval book of hours. Jessamy, living in both the upstairs world of the family and the downstairs world of the staff, may be the only one able to solve the mystery and clear Harry's name.

Before she can do this, the cupboard sends her forward in time again. But her time in the present is made magical by her knowledge of the house's past, and free from Aunt Maggie's ideas of "suitable playmates," Jessamy befriends a boy who shares his name with a man she had met in the past.

And one day, the cupboard sends her back again. A year has past, and the mystery is still unsolved...and Harry's grandfather still will not allow his name to be spoken.

If I keep on writing, it will get spoilerish, so I shall stop now. But in case anyone is wondering, Jessamy solves the mystery and ends up in her own time, with a happy ending.

Peter referred to this as a "lesser known children's book", but over in the UK it is still rather well known and loved, especially by those who read it back in the 1960s and 70s, when they were children. Partly this is because it is so easy to empathize with likable, lonely Jessamy, partly because Sleigh does a marvellous job bringing the house and its family to life, and partly because the story is magical enough to fascinate, without being so complex as to befuddle. This is the sort of book that a certain type of 10 or 11 year old girl (who values character over action, who is imaginative and introspective) will find incredibly satisfying.

Sadly, it is not readily available anymore, because it's been out of print for a while. It's selling on Amazon for around $50, although there are slightly cheaper copies at Amazon UK (fifteen pounds). But lots of American libraries bought it in the late 1960s, so it might still be lingering in the obscure branches that haven't purged their collections much...It is worth looking for.

ps. Sorry for the small size of the picture. It is not a dog in a pink dress. It is a kneeling girl. But I wanted to show an edition other than the one at Peter's site. The edition I have is an even more miserable cover than either of these, being mostly puce. If I get around to it, I'll scan it, since it's nowhere to be found on line.

9 comments:

  1. Ooh - a UK book!

    I do notice that there are a lot of time-travel books here -- I wonder if people got into it more easily here because of Dr. Who...

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  2. Yes, Tanita, I thought of you! Do see if your library has it, because it is really nice...You should also look for Antonia Barber's The Amazing Mr. Blundern, which a stupid title for a great book (pubished here as The Ghosts), which I reviewed a while ago.

    Have you read any recently published time travel books over there that I should look for? So much of my own knowledge comes from what I read as a child in British schools, which was rather a long time ago now.

    I dunno, though, about your Dr. Who theory. I think it's just easier to imagine time travelling when you have buildings, landscapes etc around that are thousands of years old...But then I consider that we have that ancientness here in America, too, although here in New England it is a more subtle physical presence, but I cannot think of a single story in which a character goes back in time to a pre-European past. Maybe because it is not the past of the more recent arrivals, who happen to be the ones who have written the most books.

    And now I am wondering if there are any non-western children's time travel books, from Indian, or Japanese, or Chinese writers. Any time travel magna, for instance.

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  3. Which one of the later L'Engle books is it when someone (not a native American) goes back to a pre-European American past? An Acceptable Time? Actually perhaps it wasn't quite pre-European, because I seem to remember there being something about a few of the native Americans having blue eyes. Not one of her best books.

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  4. > but I cannot think of a single story in which a character goes back in time to a pre-European past

    S M Stirling has a few (Conquistador, Island in the Sea of Time/Nantucket series)

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  5. True, true: D's school was started in 1453. Seriously. It's hard not to think of time travel immediately if you have stuff from back then just sort of hanging around. Like the front gates.

    We're moving next month, and I can soon better give you a heads up on the time-travel and other books here after that point. I live across the street from a huge and glorious library with a cafe... which is mostly a research library, sadly. The children's room is teensy, and the teen/MG area is... a shelf. We'll be closer to a smaller branch with more of a young reader population, and I'll hopefully get a better view of what's here.

    This is a very industrial city, and though that does not at all necessarily mean there are fewer readers, in this case, it does mean that the city does loads of reading initiatives and spends loads of money trying to lure people into the library. Sometimes it works, but I think sometimes people feel a little hounded to come in. Anyway, I can't wait to see what a more normal library looks like (minus the terrible hush, marble flooring, swooping pillars and gigantic café).

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  6. this book has been on my tbr pile for a while now...I might just have to go move it to the top. I've been building a big list of time slip books for some study I want to do - at some 200 plus books, I don't think I'll ever get through them all. Didn't Jane Louise Curry write some pre-European time travel books?

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  7. I dunno about Jane Louise Curry--I'll look her up! Thanks.

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  8. Jane Louise Curry did write pre-European time slip books back to Indian times before Columbus. I loved them as a child. She wrote a lot of fun books.

    William Mayne did some very interesting timeslips. I liked Earthfasts. None are prehistoric though.

    There were some juvenile science fiction time slips into prehistoric times. I remember Tunnel through Time, and Danny Dunn and the Time Machine. I never read Stig of the Dump but that might qualify. If I remember others I'll let you know.

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  9. The L'Engle book Emile mentioned that included Time Travel was the third of the Murry books, A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Charles Wallace psychically connects with 4 different people in 4 different time periods to see if he can influence the "might-have-beens" in order to stop a present dictator from destroying the present world. So a time-slip, sort-of. I liked it. The first of the series(and most well known) is A Wrinkle in Time.

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