This Tuesday's timeslip is a new arrival to the genre-- The Battle for Duncragglin, by Andrew H. Vanderwal (Tunda Books, 2009, 310pp, middle grade). I would have pounced on this as a child--time travel to medieval Scotland!--and, in fact, I was rather eager to read it as an adult.
Twelve year old Alex has been raised by a reluctant uncle since the mysterious deaths of his parents. Now his uncle has decided to ship him off to an aunt in Scotland, who wants him even less. So little, in fact, that he never meets her--instead, he finds himself billeted at the home of a local farmer and his three children, two boys and a girl near his age. Like his own parents, their mother mysteriously disappeared.
The farm lies near a rocky coast, whose cliffs are guarded by the ruins of Duncragglin castle, the site of a bloody battle waged by the great Scottish rebel William Wallace. And beneath the castle, the stories say, are mysterious tunnels in the ground, from which no explorer returns. Naturally, the tunnels are forbidden, but the four children find the temptation irresistible, and one dark night they set off to see for themselves what secrets the underground labyrinth holds.
What they find is a mysterious chamber, covered with tangled carvings. Their exploration triggers a shift in the rocks, blocking the way they came, but creating a new passage. A passage that leads to 14th century Scotland.
There, in the past, Alex and his friends find themselves embroiled in the cause of William Wallace, fighting a brave campaign against the tyranny of the English. It is a grim past, full of the sad consequences of oppression and war. To continue his fight, Wallace must capture Duncragglin, and Alex realizes that the knowledge of the tunnels he and the others have brought from the future might be the key...and all the while, the children search the past for their lost parents.
This is the sort of timeslip where the past provides a colorful theatre for action and adventure. It is more a book for the battle-lover, whose heart races when the arrows start to fly, than it is for the romantic daydreamer (ie me), who likes best the timeslip stories that focus on character and intricate world building. Vanderwal's 14th-century Scotland remained somewhat two-dimensional to me (and I had a few quibbles, fact-wise--medieval Scottish peasants wouldn't have smoked pipes, for instance). I also had a hard time swallowing the time travel chamber, which exists without satisfactory explanation or context. It gave the whole time travel experience a slightly "choose your own adventure" feel, that I found unmagical.
But there is, as I said, plenty of action of a medieval kind:
"Alex crouched against the stone barrier of the elevated roadway with Annie and Katie. He knew they were still exposed to arrows from some of the archers, but hope they would be overlooked. Alex shielded Katie's body body with his. Annie lay beside him, her arms over her head and eyes squeezed tight.
It sounded like the end of the world. Screams, moans, and battle cries mingled; arrows clattered against the stones. Through the chaos, a soldier cried out from within one of the guard towers: "The gates! Open the gates! Sir James approaches with his men!" (p 264).
My favorite part, however, was toward the middle of the book, when the children are camped on their own by the shore. I like "children surviving outside alone" rather a lot as a plot line...and I wish there had been more of this!
In short, although this is not a book I loved myself, it's one I can imagine engaging young readers, happy to storm the castle along with Alex.