Before I begin the review of this week's book, I just want to share that Alyce at At Home With Books has kicked of a Time Travel Reading Challenge! I guess my goal is to read 52 time travel books in the coming year, since that's how many Tuesdays there will be....Alyce has a nice list of time travel books in her announcement post, and, just in case any readers of this blog don't know, I have a full list of my review of time travel books here, sorted by time period and age range. And now, today's Timeslip Tuesday book:
Ghost of Heroes Past, by Charles Reid ( Ronsdale Press, 2010, middle grade, 170 pages)
Johnny Anders is an ordinary Canadian boy, of the lonely, daydreaming kind. But his life becomes utterly extraordinary when the ghost of a soldier begins visiting him at night. This ghost takes Johnny back into the past, showing him scenes from World Wars I and II in which Canadian men and women were present. The moving acts of heroism he witnesses include those of Bill Chong, risking his life to carry military intelligence through the havoc of south Asia in WW II, a nurse, Joan Bamford Flecher, who refuses to believe that the impossible task of bringing hundreds of wounded civilians to safety is impossible, and numerous other brave men and women, some of whom never made it home. These night-time excursions have a profound effect on Johnny, encouraging him to recognize that there might be a reason why he's been chosen by the ghost--he, too, has the gift to make stories from history become real, through his writing.
In the present, his self-confidence, minute to start with, is bolstered by his growing friendship with a new girl in town. Casey has self-confidence to spare--so much so that she dresses in gungy clothes, wanting to be judged for her character, not by her appearance. She has an interest in the two world wars herself--her great grandfather fought in both. And when Johnny begins to share his experience with her, it turns out that her great grandfather is one of the heroes whose story Johnny has been observing. She is an eager audience for his stories, who encourages him to explore his own talents as a historian...and she becomes more than just a friend.
I myself am fascinated by the two world wars, and Reid does a beautiful job telling his stories in gripping fashion. I was riveted. His presentation of the wars is balanced--he makes a stab at explaining why the Japanese did some of the horrible things they did, instead of just dismissing them as Bad, and he never glorifies or sugar-coats the realities of war. I do wonder, though, why the ghost who visits Johnny is fixed on the two world wars--this is never explained. (The ghost himself isn't exactly explained either, but I am comfortable letting that slide--it's fantasy, after all).
The other story, of Casey back in real life, requires much more suspension of disbelief--I don't think that anyone that confident really exists in any middle school. But it sure would be great if they did, and I enjoyed the growing friendship between the two, even though it also required great suspension of disbelief that Casey would really fall for Johnny...she somehow is attracted to something more than just the stories he tells, and I was never quite convinced that I saw what she did in him!
Time travel-wise, this is firmly in the didactic camp--Johnny, and the reader, are Being Taught Lessons, and Johnny remains a passive observer throughout. For those like me, who enjoy learning through fiction, this works well. And I think the book has enough excitement and mystery to hold the interest of its intended audience of young readers who enjoy historical fiction, although those who don't enjoy historical fiction for the sake of the history might find it a bit disjointed.
In the acknowledgements, Reid states that "the stories of military actions are as recorded, either by military archives, or as told by the actual participants in interviews with the author." I wish he'd made this more obvious, by including more information about this aspect of the book in an afterword. I only thought to look at the acknowledgements just now, and finding that the author seems to have actually been in touch with Bill Chong, for instance, adds, for me, a layer of interest that I think could have been developed in more detail, with pointers on how to find more information. I went poking about online, and found, for instance, this site on Canadian Chinese Veterans, where there's a picture of Bill Chong's employment letter (shown at right).
Note on age appropriateness: there is some pretty hard core horrible-ness of war described here. People die, and I think it might disturb younger readers. The growing relationship between the two kids also kicks this up a bit toward the older range of middle grade (11 to 12 year olds), even though they do no more than exchange a chaste kiss.
(a rather less favorable review of the book can be found at Quill and Quire, the Canadian book review magazine--and they do raise some valid points. But whatever the reason, Ghost of Heroes Past worked for me!)
Review copy gratefully received from the publisher for Cybils consideration.