The Devil on the Road, by Robert Westall, for Timeslip Tuesday

Squeaking in just under the gun for Timeslip Tuesday with The Devil on the Road, by Robert Westall (1978)--a good one for fans of older UK books about teens caught in time travel predicaments involving 17th century witch trials, with a nice dose of motorcycles, a charming cat, and a vividly real English rural setting.   It's a good story, the sort that might well make a huge impression if you read it young, and it's certainly memorable even if you read it old!   I'm going to be spoiling it, so be warned!

John Webster sets of on spring break from university in London on his motorbike, happy to follow fate where she leads him.  He ends up sheltering from a storm in an old barn way off in the middle of nowhere, which is just what fate wanted.  The landowner finds him there, and offers him the use of the barn as long as he wants it, so he stays, and gradually the landowner works to make it more of a home.  John saves a little kitten, and enjoys puttering around...but things get weird.  The villagers are weird around him, calling him "Cunning."  The landowner is rather too anxious to make the barn a home, and indeed it was once a manor house.  John discovers a hidden room with old furnishings.  And then the kitten, grown into a cat strangy quickly, leads him back in time to the 17th century.

There he meets a girl his own age, Johanna, the daughter of the old manor's lord.  He follows the cat back and forth in time for a few visits, interesting but not terribly disturbing (except with regard to 17th century hygene).  But then things take a dark turn when the most notorious witchunter of all 17th century England arrives. 

Matthew Hopkins, the Witch Finder General, was real, and he was awful.  He was in the witch hunting business purely for the money-the more women he killed as witches, the more he made.  And now he is targeting the women of Johanna's village, and she is determined to save him, even at risk of being found guilty of witchcraft herself. Which is what happens, and it is very vivid and tense indeed.

But John steps in to save her, and comes back to the 17th century armed and dangerous, the Devil on the Road of the title.  And save her he does, and they travel together back to the old barn/restored manor house along with all the other accused women (who conveniently, and confusingly, vanish from the scene). 

If this were a modern YA book, John and Johanna would fall in love and it would be all nice and romantic.  But it isn't.  Johanna does want John to stay with her, but she turns out to actually be a witch, and 17th century witches, even if they are good witches, helping others, tend to try to get their own way.  John  doesn't love her, and doesn't want to spend the rest of his life buried in the green and verdant country healing villagers....and he barely escapes.

Here's what frustrated me--Johanna doesn't make any effort at meaningful communication, relying instead on her magic to try to get John to stay with her.  It makes her rather two dimensional and unsympathetic.  There she is in the 20th century, and she wants to keep playing by her own rules. John, on the other hand, is a very sympathetic character--kind to kittens. 

If you are at all interested in fiction about the 17th century, it's well worth a read--a truly memorable story.  It's one of the few time travel books in which the time travel is aided and abetted by locals who might or might not know what is happening, who manipulate the protagonist so that he cooperates, which makes it interesting. 

This is the first Robert Westall book I've read, but he does seem to be on of the great UK children's writers of the last three decades of the 20th century, winner of two Carnegie Medals, the Smarties Prize, and the Guardian Prize.  I'll be on the look out for more of his books.


  1. Oh, I love this one, Charlotte! Robert Westall was just ace at creepy tales. For another timeslip story may I recommend his 'The Wind Eye', set in Northumberland and featuring that county's very own and very characterful saint, Cuthbert?

    1. Oh, I have that one kicking around somewhere in one of the TBR pile rooms. Cuthbert is one of my favorite saints (otters ftw!) so I'm rather incined to hunt for it now....


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