Darby has been sent to spend the summer with her grandparents on Prince Edward Island, where she's never been before (her father and her grandfather are not close). She's not happy about the long, boring months stretching in front of her, stuck in a "lame little place." At least, she thinks, she'll have plenty of time to practice skateboarding.
Then she meets Gabe, who takes it on himself to prove that she is wrong in her perception of the island.
"Follow me," Gabe's voice somehow carried through the storm. There was a clap of thunder and something leapt straight out at Darby from the grass. She jumped, but it was only Maurice, her grandparents' cat, hanging out here again. He must have been looking for shelter because he hopped past them onto the stone windowsill of the chapel.
"This place doesn't look very safe," Darby yelled, looking at the half-collapsed roof and piles of rubble inside. Definitely more like a chicken-house than a chapel."
"Perhaps you are correct," Gabe replied. "But what choice have we? Please take my hand."
She grabbed on and they stepped up onto the windowsill..." (page 48)
And then they walk through the window, and go back in time.
Three times Darby passes through during the course of the story, and each time she finds herself on a journey to Canada. She sees the first people to follow the caribou herds across the Bering Straits land bridge, she sees, to her horror, the suffering of the Irish immigrants trapped on a coffin ship, and finally she watches her grandfather's great-grandfather's arrival at the end of the 18th-century. Gabe seems to be a part of each of the groups she visit, but Darby herself is a ghost, a passive spectator as she watches and learns from the past.
In the present, Darby is also watching and learning from the events unfolding around her, as her grandfather sinks slowly into the clutches of Alzheimer's. As she grows closer to her grandparents, Darby learns about her own family, and the tragedy that lead to her father's alienation from his parents.
This plot-line in the present gives depth and meaning to the episodic time-slip elements, which, although engrossing, well-written, and historically accurate, fall squarely on the passively didactic side. And in turn her encounters with the past make Darby an increasingly sympathetic character (especially as she turns to the local library for help making sense of the stories she has seen--this almost makes up for her complete lack of interest in Anne of Green Gables).
This is the sort of book that is an excellent read for those who like to learn history from their fiction--it's interesting and enjoyable. If I knew any 10 or 11 year olds traveling to Canada, I'd give it to them in a second. But, for me at least, it never made the transition to truly magical...almost, but not quite.
Perhaps this is because Gabe, who instigates the time slipping, and who has active roles to play in the past, remains a complete mystery, and never gets to be much more than a plot device. Why does the window take them back in time, and how did Gabe figure it out? Why can people see Gabe but not Darby? Who the heck is he, anyway? I can't help but feel that the book would have been richer if more had been made of him...
In the end, it is the family dynamics in the present that are more compelling than the time travel, especially the moving portrayal of Darby's Grandfather, with his memories of war and past tragedy. Here Dyer succeeds rather powerfully in creating a poignant picture of what it means to have history, and to belong to a family and a place.
Here's another review, from Kate at The Book Aunt last April, where I left a comment saying that this one was going on my list! I'm glad it got nominated for the Cybils mg sff/f (for which I am a panelist), because I've been wanting to read it ever since, and I'd like to thank the publisher for sending review copies--thank, Doubleday Canada!
Read Kate's review reminds me that I also added Dyer's Eagle Glen trilogy to my list--Kate says it's "about a girl named Darrell Connor who travels through time to Scotland, Italy, England, and Spain at crucial points in history and deals with villainous intrigues" and I am so sold. After the Cybils...