A Wish After Midnight, for this Wednesday's Timeslip Tuesday

To misquote Churchy LaFemme, Timeslip Tuesday falls on a Wednesday this week. I'm thinking that next Tuesday might not be any better than the past few Tuesdays have been, and the books are piling up...so here it is.

A Wish After Midnight, by Zetta Elliott (2008, YA, 230pp).

Genna's Brooklyn is a hellish place to live. In her world of drug deals, cramped living space, and grime, there are two places of refuge--the library, and a private garden (free to the public on Tuesdays). In the library, Genna works to make her dream of college come true. In the peace of the garden, she tosses pennies into the fountain, making as many wishes as she has coins.

There in the garden one wish comes true, when she becomes friends, then more than friends, with Judah. To him, she is beautiful and strong, and he values her sharp mind and passionate intensity. But one night, the garden becomes a places of ghosts, and Genna makes a desperate wish that sends her careening back in time, to Brooklyn during the Civil War, just weeks before the Emancipation Proclamation.

It is not a good time to be a young black girl in New York City.

Her wish has dragged Judah into the past as well, into the last gasp of slavery, and its long aftermath. And then the New York City Draft Riots send the flames of racial hatred sky high, and the city burns...

This is powerful stuff. I would love to discuss this book with someone, to argue about which of the characters are most convincing, and which fall short (somewhat ironically, I'm not sure that the white couple who hire Genna to care for their child are as well characterized as they might have been). Í want to think more about the colonization of Liberia, touched on here. I want to discuss why I cared more for Genna in the present than in the past--I felt so distracted by the setting, the drama, and the action that occurred in the past, over quite a long period of time, that the person within it, whom I had gotten to know so slowly and with so much love in the first part of the book, was somewhat obscured.

And especially I'd like to argue about the ways in which modern Genna, with her knowledge of ghetto life in the present of 2001 and her achingly realizable ambitions (it is hard not to believe she can make it to college, heartbreaking to see her and her family struggle), copes with the much more overt racism (and the sexism) she encounters back in the 19th century.

This last point--the plot line of a modern girl, facing a hostile past--is part of what makes the time slip genre so interesting. Time travel can be used by writers who want to the adventure the past provides, or the chance to educate readers about a particular period of history. It can do both, while focusing on the central character's dislocation--the degree to which the history is made a central interest is fairly flexible. Unlike historical fiction, whose writers must, I imagine, always be looking anxiously over their shoulders for anachronisms, time travel writers are free to have a modern point of view. They can ask, essentially, "what does the past look like to us? What, back then, is alien to our sensibilities, but is, at the same time, bound up in how we got to where we are?"

That is what Elliott does here, in her page turning and heart wrenching portrayal of a girl's struggle to survive in two dangerous worlds.

You won't find this book in your local bookstore (unless it is a very unusual bookstore), because A Wish After Midnight never found a home with a publisher, and the author brought it out herself. A sequel, Judah's Tale, is in the works--as of June 26, there were twenty chapters, and Elliott is airing some as the book progresses at her blog.

Here are other reviews, at A Striped Armchair, Wands and Worlds, The HappyNappyBookseller, and Bookslut. At Cynsations, you can read an interview with Elliott, and see trailers for both this book and her picture book, Bird.


  1. I haven't reviewed this title because I felt pretty conflicted about the character of Judah -- I don't feel compelled to follow Genna into the next book to find out about him, rather I want to find out about her, and how her time in the past changes her present. I'm not sure why the character of Paul was introduced -- only to show that someone else found Genna lovable? To prove the reality of biracial people in that time? There are a lot of threads I wanted to pursue that the author felt were less important -- it is a multi-layered, thought-provoking book...

  2. That book sounds really good - how disappointing that it never found a publisher.

    Thanks for the review.

  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful review, Charlotte! You raise some really good questions for discussion...I only wish I could find a way to arrange a reading group for Wish; maybe I'll figure it out by the time Judah's Tale is done (end of August, fingers crossed). I'm especially interested in the way you position the novel within the time-slip genre; I started out identifying Wish that way, but kept hearing that it was "really historical fiction." Now I think of it as speculative fiction, since that term encompasses so many different forms and strategies. But you're absolutely right--the time travel device creates an opportunity to consider notions of progress: how far have we really come? the passage of time alone doesn't ensure improved conditions and/or relations between members of our society.

    Tanita--Paul serves a couple of purposes in the novel (for me, at least!) He's Judah's foil, of course, and so he provides Genna with an alternative when it comes to romance *and* finding a way forward; Judah is a racial chauvinist and staunchly supports the colonization movement, whereas Paul embodies hybridity--not only b/c he's mixed race, but b/c his vision of the future involves "settling" the West, staying in the USA...Judah's cynical, Paul's hopeful; Judah's patriarchal, Paul's more progressive in his treatment of women...I think of DuBois a lot, and how he devoted his entire life to bringing about change in US race relations...then surrendered his passport and moved to Ghana at the end of his life. Paul has that kind of stamina... Judah does not...

    Sorry to go on so long! Thanks again for giving my novel a chance. All my books are now available through Baker & Taylor, so any bookstore and/or library should be able to order it for their patrons.

  4. Thanks for stopping by, Zetta!

    I myself found Paul an important character, and was rooting for him over Judah. Even though I knew he probably didn't stand a chance.

    Like Tanita, I feel conflicted about Judah. He seems at first to validate Genna, respecting her for her strong-mindedness, but it seems (as is so often the case in real life) that he respects her opinions as long as they match his own. I'll be curious to see how this plays out...

    And like Tanita, I'm desperatly interested in Genna in the present!

    Anyone in Rhode Island who would like to reat this--there's no copy yet in our library system, but I'll be donating mine, so it should be on the shelf in the nearish future.

  5. I am looking forward to reading Judah's tale because I want to understand him more. I want to see how the shift in time changed him. I want to get a glimpse into his upbringing. Though I prefered Paul's treatment of Genna, I don't hate Judah. I hated the way he was treating Genna in Civil War times, but he had his own battles to fight before finding Genna again. So I will read Judah's tale to see how this affected his treatment of Genna.

    Charlotte - One of my favorite scenes with Genna, after the wish, when she's cornered by those two guys. Even with all the fear, Genna remembers to use some of that Brooklyn fight.

  6. I think Judah's tale will be appealing to boys, Tanita and I can understand why Zetta would want to write about him. Having said that though, yes, I want more Genna as well! I would love to know what happens after she gets back with her mom and siblings but I'm game for Judah's story too.


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