Backtracked, by Pedro de Alcantara (Delacorte 2009, YA, 256 pages)
"By the day I was born, April 3, 1990, I had already lived several lives. But I didn't learn about them until Tuesday, February 28, 2006." (page 1)
Tommy Latrella's brother was a firefighter killed on 9/11. Ever since then, he's felt that whenever his parents and teachers look at him, they see Jimmy's absence, and Tommy knows they think he falls far short of his hero brother. So he slacks off in school, riding the subways instead...not caring much about anything.
But the downward spiral of Tommy's life changes one day when a joke he plays in a crowded station goes horribly wrong, and a little girl lands on the train tracks. Trying to save her, Tommy ends up back in 1918. There he is taken in by the Italian immigrant community. Working long hours building the subway tracks he'll ride in the future, he still finds time to feel like part of an extended family...and then the influenza epidemic strikes.
Time tricks Tommy again, and this time he is a bum in the Depression. To save a friend, he accepts money from the mob, and gets sucked into a spiral of increasing violence, until, once again, he's bumped forward in time. His final life in the past is as a WW II army recruit, and finally, in this life, Tommy gets a chance to trust himself, without any heroics, but just as a part of growing up. And then it's back to the present...
So that's the gist of the timetravelling--a teenage boy's journey from a slacker existence as his brother's ghost to a confident sense of self-worth and purpose. But this book isn't just a Lesson (although there is a somewhat didactic miasma to it). It's good historical fiction of the time-travelling sort--one of the best early twentieth century Italian immigrant experience stories I've read, the best boy sucked in by the Prohibition era mob story I've read, and the best teenage grunt in training for WW II I've read.
Although I, um, can't think of any others I've ever read. So I think that's one main strength of the book--it's an introduction to neglected pieces of the past, with tons of boy appeal in the types of story being told (although, unfortunately, the least "exciting" part of his adventure, the 1918 track-laying stint, is first, which might off-put some readers).
But it's more than just a presentation of the past through time-travel. It's an archetypal boy growing up journey, and I found Tommy's passage from disaffected slacker to thoughtful almost-adult to be both moving and convincing. Of course, it helps that he was in the past, away from his family, for about a year of hard labor--I think it was this chance to grow up that led to this transition, more than any specific "lessons" taught by the past. Although he does decide, based on experience, that he'd rather starve than join the mob again.
Especially recommended to boys who like riding the NY transit system, and anyone with an interest in New York's history.
Time travel-wise--no rhyme or reason to it all; the loose connection to the subway explains nothing. And there's one real sticky point for me. Tommy come home with a buzz cut, wearing a WW II uniform, which his parents notice. So the physical changes wrought by his life in the past are real--surely someone would notice that he's just been through basic training and is a lot bigger and stronger?
High marks, however, in the believable disorientation of the time-travelling teenager category.
Another review from a reader who reacted quite differently from me, at The Englishist.