Look Ahead, Look Back, by Annette Laing (Confusion Press, 2012), is the latest adventure of three time travelling kids from Georgia. When Hannah and Alex Diaz moved from California to Snipesville, they suffered all kinds of culture shock, but were fortunate to make a new friend, a boy named Brandon. But Brandon, whose black, doesn't go to the Diaz's snooty private school... However, for these three kids, there is a lot more to life than school. When they stumble across a skeletal body eroding out of the ground, they find themselves embarking on their most nail-biting time travel adventure to date. And this time, the mysterious professor who masterminded their previous travels doesn't seem to be on hand to provide her usual safety net.
In mid-eighteenth century Georgia, slavery has just been legalized, and Hannah, Alex, and Brandon are about to see for themselves just what that means. And this time around, time travel has played a trick on the boys--Brandon is now the white kid, working as a servant for a newly immigrated Anglican minister. And Alex is now a black slave, the property of an ambitious, vicious man. As for Hannah, she finds herself the indentured servant of that same man...one notch up from the horror of slavery, but still virtual property. In a world where old beliefs and Christianity both hold sway, in a world where some have the power of life and death, and some have only the power to resist, Alex, Brandon, and Hannah survive as best they can, seeking not only the answer to the mystery of the skeleton in the woods, but a way to get back home....
Laing explores difficult questions with a confident hand. The relationships between Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans in the remote Georgia frontier are fraught with fear and danger, and, without sugar-coating anything, she makes this complexity clear to the reader. In what I think is a wise move, she avoids Alex's first person perspective on what it is like to be a white boy turned into a black slave. But she does give him a clear voice, and allows Brandon and Alex to reflect and react both meaningfully and believably on their changed skin color, and the social consequences of that change. The evil of slavery is confronted in a forthright way, not only through descriptions of physical abuse and hardship, but more philosophically as well--can you own someone, and still be a good person, or will having such power corrupt you? Likewise, religion is tackled head on. Brandon is a Southern Baptist, and a sincere Christian. Hannah and Alex aren't. Rather than being avoided, this is something that is talked about in the open, and something that affects Brandon's motivations back in the past.
The historical world building is excellent. Annette Laing quit a tenured university job teaching history to write, and it's clear that she knows her stuff. This is not a place or period that's within my own area of historical expertise, but the details of the social structure, and the three cultures intersecting, seemed pretty good to me (although the Native Americans were mostly off-stage--the setting was primarily the cleared land of the nascent plantations. I had only one moment of doubt in the whole book, which is pretty darn good, because I am very picky about my historical fiction.* Others with more knowledge might, of course, find more to question. But in short, from an educational standpoint, I highly recommend it.
And finally, it's a pretty darn exiting story, qua story! The three kids are not just sock puppets of Time Travel, but are very human, and the book is as much about the relationships between people as it is about the adventures of time travelling. Hannah, in particular, is a complex and interesting character--her mother died not long ago, and she is still working through her feelings of resentment, loss, and failure.
This is my favorite of the three books in the series, and I think it can be read as a standalone--there are lots of reference to other characters met in the past in other books, but there's enough context to keep the new reader from being too confused.
* As I said above, I found almost nothing to bother me in the details of the history. But just for the record, my one moment of doubt occurred when Alex actually saw (or thought he saw, in a fever dream) one of the Little People who lived alongside the Native Americans--I certainly don't mind them being part of the world, because they were, and still are, here, but the description of this Person was rather stereotypical, and the episode as a whole struck me as somewhat odd (edited to add--in that this was a manifestation from outside Alex's own culture)
"His visitor was a minuscule but perfectly-proportioned Indian warrior....He had bronzed skin, very long black hair, almost down to his ankles, and he wore only a loin cloth. he carried a tiny bow and arrow." (page 137)
It's fine to say that people from different cultures inhabit different worlds, but it stretches credulity when things specific to one world cross into another. But this is the only detail that actively bothered me in the whole book.
Note: This series is independently published, and the page formatting is not standard (the top margin is very small). But do not be put off by this! The editing is spot on, and soon you'll get used to the layout.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the author