Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln, by Patricia Polacco, for Timeslip Tuesday

Just in Time, Abraham Lincoln, by Patricia Polacco (a picture book from Putnam Juvenile, 2011)

Michael and Derek are dismayed when their grandmother confiscates their stash of electronic divertissements on the train to Washington, D.C. The chance to meet an expert on the Civil War at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, does not seem like an exciting exchange, and indeed, they find his collection of Civil War photographs, taken by Mathew Brady on the battlefields of the war. However, dressing up in authentic Union uniforms is not without its appeal, as the war is not entirely without interest to the boys:

"Hey, I had a video game about the battle of Gettysburg," Derek chirped. "I blew away four hundred soldiers all by myself. I think I set a record."

So when the museum director offers them a chance to play a Civil War game, involving a visit to Antietam (the bloodiest conflict of the Civil War) just after the battle, the boys are keen to go. Dressed in their uniforms, they pass through a door....and are back in the past.

There they find themselves taking the roles of Mathew Brady's assistants, as he prepares to photograph Abraham Lincoln meeting General McClellan on the battlefield. And there, on the battlefield, still littered with corpses, they learn that war is not a game.

Abraham Lincoln is there with them, deeply saddened by the carnage. Michael cannot restrain himself, and comforts Lincoln by telling him the North will win the war, the country will remain united, and that a black man will become president, and as proof, in one of the more powerful moments of the book, shows Lincoln a 2007 penny.

But the boys must get back to Harper's Ferry before their time in the past runs out....and there are still enemy troops in the area....

This is the only example I know of that combines picture-book format with time travel to offer a historical lesson. The lesson aspect felt to me a tad heavy-handed, but this is not unexpected, given the limited amount of text one can put in a picture book. Likewise, there's a bit of stiffness in the framing device used--the reader, like the boys, is not sure for the first part of the story if things are going to get interesting.

Once things get going, it does become tremendously gripping.

"But then the photographer moaned, "Oh, my God! Over here." Through a small woods, he'd come upon a low hill with a shed on it. Then Michael saw what the photographer saw. Behind the shed were three soldiers, one sitting, one on his side as if he were swimming, stiff and not moving. Two wore blue, one wore gray."

They are, of course, dead, and this is when the two boys realize that this is no game. The two double-page, wordless illustrations of the battlefield, littered with corpses, literally made my eight year old's jaw drop with horror--here's one of them, from the author's website:
Clearly, this isn't a bedtime picture book for the very young child, but for the older reader (around 8) it is an excellent introduction to the Civil War, and to the horror of war in general. I think, both because of the rather slow start and because of the disturbing subject matter, this is one that works best read aloud.

Here are other reviews, at The Fourth Musketeer and Page in Training

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a good time travel book on the Civil War and I will be looking for it in my library.


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