The Jewel and the Key, by Louise Spiegler (Clarion Books, 2011, YA, 464 pages)
When an earthquake hits Seattle, it sets in motion a chain of events that gives sixteen-year old Addie, stage struck but shut out of the high school drama clique, the theater experience of her dreams. But this comes at a price that Addie could never have expected. While helping her father fix the earthquake damage to his bookstore, she finds a silver mirror, tucked among vintage clothes in a hidden storage room. When she looks in the mirror, she finds herself transported back to 1917 Seattle...where the dilapidated old theater of her own time, the Jewel, still has all its glory.
There, in the company of the vibrant theater people of the past, Addie learns to love the Jewel, and one young actor, named Reg, in particular. But the mirror shuttles her back and forth between times, and the future, both for the people of 1917, and in her own time, is clouded by war. For Reg, it's WW I; for Addie's best friend, and kind-of foster-brother, Whaley, it's the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the present, the owner of the Jewel is hoping to restore it--if the preservationists, with their grant money, can be convinced that enough is known about its original appearance. Addie's mirror might be the key that is needed...but saving the theatre, and saving Whaley and Reg from being swallowed by war, might be too much for her to pull off.
The Jewel and the Key is a book that carefully builds its story--as the cover image suggests, there are no mad rushings into headlong action. Addie is given time to come to terms with her time-travelling, the reader is given time to get to know the supporting cast, and, most importantly, there is time for Siegler to build a beautifully convincing picture of Seattle on the brink of WW I. The social history of the time is crucial to the story, and Siegler does an excellent job making it meaningful.
Addie herself is equally convincing--her relationships, both in the past and the present, rang true. The romance element of the book gave it poignancy on an intimate scale; the reality of war gave it a more universal emotional power.
It was a book I read somewhat slowly, feeling no need to rush (yet feeling, just a tad, that things could move on a bit faster...). I savored, along with Addie, the life of the early 20th century theater, I fretted along with her as she hunted in the present for the information that could restore it to its former glory, and my heart ached for her as she tried to keep safe those she loved.
At its best (in my opinion), time travel books use the past in powerful ways to change the lives of the characters from the present, forcing them to grow up, and change; putting them, essentially, through an emotional wringer, while shinning light on what was never considered before (and not annoying the picky reader with anachronisms). The Jewel and the Key does all this very nicely--Addie isn't the same person at the end, and I, as the reader, wasn't quite either, in the small, but cumulatively important ways that a book can change and educate its reader.
That being said, it wasn't a book that I loved. I think the deliberate pacing of the book diluted the emotional intensity somewhat, but this could have been just me. I held back from investing myself in the relationships formed in the past, having learned, through bitter fictional experience, that WW I and happily ever don't always go hand in hand (which isn't a spoiler for this book in particular, just my perspective reading it). I did, however, enjoy it very much, and do heartily recommend it, to fans of historical fiction and the theatre in particular.
Note on the mechanics of the time travel--sure, the mirror serves as a connection between past and present, and it's a special mirror, but there's no reason why it should act as a time travel device. If lack of explanation bothers you, you might well be bothered.
Note on age: It's YA in theme and age of heroine, but not inappropriate for a younger reader. The romance is understated, and though there are disturbing depictions of the reality of war, and police brutality, the violence isn't as nearly as graphic as The Hunger Games, which all the 11 year olds I know have read....
Here's another review, at Jen Robinson's Book Page (who incidentally found it a fast read, leading me to wonder if my reaction would have been different if I had read it under more peaceful circumstances that those that transpired. Last night was not a shining star in the annals of my 11 year old's homework)