Facing Fire, by kc dyer (Doubleday Canada, 2010, middle grade, 224 pages). Sequel to A Walk Through A Window, but it's not necessary to have read that first.
Darcy's feelings about getting an extra week of spring vacation are more than a little mixed, due to the reason for the extended break--her best friend Sarah set fire to a school building. It began as a small act of protest against the racist anti-gang poster tacked to the wall, which showed a dark-skinned hand holding a gun. Sarah, who is black, couldn't stand it--and flicked her lighter...But then the flames spread.
And so Darcy, nervous about being implicated, is glad for the chance to go stay for a week in Kingston with a friend of her mom's, Fiona, who's working on a clean drinking water project. On her last trip away from home, Darcy had had the experience of a lifetime--walking through an old window into past era's of Canada's history. In Kingston it happens again, and another window becomes a gateway into the turbulent past. Her first trip back she is alone, watching as a French settlement is burned by the British. Then, with a new friend, a fellow skateboarder named Zander (short for Alexander), Darcy experiences first hand the terrors of the war of 1812 and the desperate journey to Canada of an escaped slave.
Darcy doesn't know why she's able to travel through time--it's never explained, and she's learned to accept that. She and Zander are simply spectators of the past, powerless to change it. But what they see changes them...
kc dyer does an excellent job with her historical vignettes. Darcy's experiences in the past are vivid and exciting (and education, which I, speaking as one who likes learning history through fiction, appreciate). The connection between the pasts and the present, though, felt rather forced to me.
Obviously Darcy and Zander learn, along with the reader, about the prejudices and injustices of the past, and both are confronting those issues in the present. Darcy is processing Sarah's reaction to the racism of the poster, and the injustices regarding access to clean water in Canada that are a huge part of Fiona's work (the majority of the boil water advisories in Canada are on First Nation lands, and some have lasted years). Zander's family are Mohawk--his parents are academics, but his grandfather wants him to come back to the tribal lands. He's seen his parents fighting stereotypes all his life, and feels ambivalent about his heritage.
But the story of Darcy's week in Kingston (past and present) never quite coalesced as a whole for me. This might be because of the overt didactisism of dyer's approach. I am in total agreement with the points she makes about racism in the contemporary world, and applaud her for spelling them out, but the downside of this is that they are underlined so much as slow the story down considerably. In this context, the time travel episodes seem much more like Lessons than like organic parts of a whole story....
Still, the descriptions of the past are, as I said above, first rate!
(review copy received from the publisher for Cybils consideration).