Paperquake, by Kathryn Reiss (Harcourt, 1999, midde grade, 272 pages)
Violet has always been the baby of her family, even though she's technically the same age as her two triplet sisters--she was the only frail one, and needed heart surgery as a child, so she's always been protected and hovered over. She the odd one out in looks as well, as her sisters are identical, and operate as a team. She's determined to take her full place alongside her sisters...but how can she get them to take her seriously?
When her parents by a dilapidated building in downtown San Francisco, a small earthquake dislodges an old letter, written to a girl called Baby V. in 1906, whose life seems to mirror Violet's own. This letter is just the first in a mysterious paper chase-- more and more information about Baby V. comes Violet's way, almost as if it is meant. And like Violet, V. in the past was haunted by the fear of earthquakes.
And in one of the last letters, V.'s nightmare is described, and Violet realizes to her horror that it is a warning:
"The bridge was a fabulous golden bridge that spanned the entire bay....slowly I became aware that there was a dark-haired girl at my side. She did not speak. Then suddenly the bridge was shaking, and I grabbed the golden girder for support. But unlike real gold it was not solid, and seemed to melt away under my hand. Fire shot up around me, and through the smoke I saw three shadows reaching out their hands to me. Then we were falling, and falling around us, too, were strange vehicles, like horseless carriages or automobiles, but sleek and smooth and all shiny colors. There were people trapped inside, men, women, children--all screaming as we plummeted toward the churning water" (page 180).
All the pieces of the puzzle from the past come together to give Violet the information she needs to save the victims of the earthquake that's about to happen in the present...and she rises to the occasion in truly exciting climax.
Violet's struggle to stop being the baby of her family is easy to empathize with, as are her relationships with her sisters, best friend, and new almost-maybe boyfriend. And the story of V. in the past--one of thwarted romance-- is interesting in its own right. The paper chase relies heavily on coincidence, but is absorbing none the less, and since it gradually seems as though there's a reason why the letter keep falling into Violet's hands, the coincidence is more palatable than it might otherwise have been.
This is one for young middle grade readers (girls more than boys, I'd say) who have patience with a slow-buildup of suspense and mystery, who are able to suspend disbelief. Judging from the considerable number of five star reviews from kids on Amazon, this is one that seems to work well for the right reader! That wasn't me, exactly--I enjoyed it just fine (although I wanted to shake Violet's parents for babying her), but I never cared all that much for the characters (past and present).
And I would personally have preferred that the time slip element was made more present (instead of just being dreams and premonitions), which I think would have added more umph, but this wasn't truly necessary to the plot. I'm calling this time travel to our present, even though no-one actually travels; just two characters in the past dreaming of the present earthquake and somehow transmitting that warning through time.
(unrelated thought on the cover--I found it interesting to see that Violet is shown on the original hardcover wearing a hoodie, which is now, after the death of Treyvon Martin, so charged a garment in the US; it's charged elsewhere as well. I just learned via wikipedia that in 2011, police in Brisbane, Australia, "launched a 'Hoodie Free Zone' initiative, with shopkeepers encouraged to ask hoodie-wearers to leave." I wonder if we will see such innocent hoodies as Violet's on book covers again. And in fact on the paperback cover, shown at right, the hoodie is gone).