A Wish After Midnight, by Zetta Elliott (2008, YA, 230pp).
Genna's Brooklyn is a hellish place to live. In her world of drug deals, cramped living space, and grime, there are two places of refuge--the library, and a private garden (free to the public on Tuesdays). In the library, Genna works to make her dream of college come true. In the peace of the garden, she tosses pennies into the fountain, making as many wishes as she has coins.
There in the garden one wish comes true, when she becomes friends, then more than friends, with Judah. To him, she is beautiful and strong, and he values her sharp mind and passionate intensity. But one night, the garden becomes a places of ghosts, and Genna makes a desperate wish that sends her careening back in time, to Brooklyn during the Civil War, just weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation.
It is not a good time to be a young black girl in New York City.
Her wish has dragged Judah into the past as well, into the last gasp of slavery, and its long aftermath. And then the New York City Draft Riots send the flames of racial hatred sky high, and the city burns...
This is powerful stuff. I would love to discuss this book with someone, to argue about which of the characters are most convincing, and which fall short (somewhat ironically, I'm not sure that the white couple who hire Genna to care for their child are as well characterized as they might have been). Í want to think more about the colonization of Liberia, touched on here. I want to discuss why I cared more for Genna in the present than in the past--I felt so distracted by the setting, the drama, and the action that occurred in the past, over quite a long period of time, that the person within it, whom I had gotten to know so slowly and with so much love in the first part of the book, was somewhat obscured.
And especially I'd like to argue about the ways in which modern Genna, with her knowledge of ghetto life in the present of 2001 and her achingly realizable ambitions (it is hard not to believe she can make it to college, heartbreaking to see her and her family struggle), copes with the much more overt racism (and the sexism) she encounters back in the 19th century.
This last point--the plot line of a modern girl, facing a hostile past--is part of what makes the time slip genre so interesting. Time travel can be used by writers who want to the adventure the past provides, or the chance to educate readers about a particular period of history. It can do both, while focusing on the central character's dislocation--the degree to which the history is made a central interest is fairly flexible. Unlike historical fiction, whose writers must, I imagine, always be looking anxiously over their shoulders for anachronisms, time travel writers are free to have a modern point of view. They can ask, essentially, "what does the past look like to us? What, back then, is alien to our sensibilities, but is, at the same time, bound up in how we got to where we are?"
That is what Elliott does here, in her page turning and heart wrenching portrayal of a girl's struggle to survive in two dangerous worlds.
You won't find this book in your local bookstore (unless it is a very unusual bookstore), because A Wish After Midnight never found a home with a publisher, and the author brought it out herself. A sequel, Judah's Tale, is in the works--as of June 26, there were twenty chapters, and Elliott is airing some as the book progresses at her blog.
Here are other reviews, at A Striped Armchair, Wands and Worlds, The HappyNappyBookseller, and Bookslut. At Cynsations, you can read an interview with Elliott, and see trailers for both this book and her picture book, Bird.