It to this alternate Virginia, a place where black people are treated as less than human, that Justin and his mom have travelled. There Justin meets a girl named Becky, dragged from California to Virginia by her grandmother's desire to see her family there. For both these teenagers, their visit soon becomes a nightmare when Ohio launches a bioengineered disease on Virginia, the two "states" go to war, and Virgina is shaken from within by a desperate rebellion of its African American population.
Turtledove takes his time here, spending considerable time making his alternative history clear to the reader. Much of this exposition is presented as the thoughts of the two main protagonists, and their rather abstract musings keep the reader from becoming immediately engaged. It's interesting stuff, and thought-provoking, but it makes for a somewhat slow start to the book. It's not till the war breaks out, and Becky and Justin find themselves trapped by disease in a small town near the Ohio boarder, that it becomes a gripping, even nail-biting at times, story.
This book made an interesting change from many current YA. Turtledove is much more interested in his world building than in his characters, and so Justin and Becky's relationship isn't the driving force of the plot. They do not fall into one another's arms by day three, drawn to each other by an overpowering attraction. Instead, Turtledove develops their growing attraction slowly and believably. It is a relationship somewhat pressure-cooked by their circumstances--they are two foreigners trapped together--but one that is constrained by Becky's realization that Justin is hiding things from her, and by his recognition of the fact that he cannot tell her what his secrets are. For Justin, the hardest part of being stuck in this alternate reality is that he must pretend to be a Virginian, espousing the despicable beliefs of his "home" state, which Becky finds repellent. For both, the fear of never getting home haunts them.
The story alternates between the perspectives of the two protagonists, giving the reader both Becky's insights into the disfunctionality of her time, and Justin's broader perspective on the horrors of war and racism. The result is a thought-provoking, even haunting look at what might have happened to our country if things had happened just a little differently back at its beginnings. It's perhaps a tad too didactic at times, but not so much so as to put me off.
Note on readership age: this book is part of series written for young adults, and it is clear the Turtledove held back with regard to profanity and racial epithets--he mentions when characters are using these, but doesn't spell them out. I don't particularly want to read lots of curses and hideous racial epithets, but Turtledove's (very) pointed avoidance of these was distracting. For example:
"Those miserable people are still making trouble in Charlestown. We're going in to make sure they stop."
He didn't really say people. The word he used was one nobody in the U.S.A. in the home timeline could say without proving he was a disgusting racist." (pp 201-202)
I think I would have preferred asterisks.
Becky and Justin's relationship only just barely squeaks into the realm of the physical, so it's a "clean" read in that regard. However, there is some horrifying violence toward the end, and this, plus the disturbing nature of this dystopia (and the fact that the protagonists are older teenagers), makes it firmly YA on up.
There's a study guide included at the end, which raises some interesting questions and discussion points.
Here's the whole Crosstime Traffic series--
- Gunpowder Empire (2003)
- Curious Notions (2004)
- In High Places (2006)
- The Disunited States of America (2006, reissued in 2011 by Tor)
- The Gladiator (2007)
- The Valley-Westside War (2008)
nb: review copy of The Disunited States received from the publisher.