The Magic Tunnel, by Caroline D. Emerson

The Magic Tunnel, by Caroline D. Emerson (1940) is a classic example of didactic time travel. This is made clear in the introduction-- "What was it like to live in old New Amsterdam so long ago? Go through the magic tunnel now-- and see!"

Ten year old Sarah is visiting her twelve year old cousin John in New York City, and when John takes her on a subway trip down to Battery Park, she feels somewhat anxious and overwhelmed. So she wishes that she "could go somewhere in this city where it wasn't so crowded," (page 15) and suddenly the rain is moving faster, but in the opposite direction! And it is completely empty. When it comes to a stop, John and Sarah find that it has taken them back in time, to New Amsterdam, in the year 1664.

Things are somewhat tense in New Amsterdam--Sarah and John have arrived just before the English take over, and change its name to New York. But as far as time travel goes, they have a handy place in the past, as two properly dressed and Dutch speaking children...and so they, along with the reader, learn lots about daily life in the 17th century and a bit about the European history of the city. The Native American history is not directly addressed, except in as much as the children encounter a stereotypical Indian "naked except for a fur at his waist" and able to move really really quietly through the woods (page 36). (Since this is August, and therefore Hot, and since there has been at this point fifty years of European cloth being traded, the fur rubbed me the wrong way).


The story is reasonably plotted, with interesting episodes (For instance, they go to school. They meet an old man who sailed with Henry Hudson. The English arrive to take over the city). The history was reasonably accurate (apart from the glossing over of the Native American side of things), and although I noticed some details of the material culture seemed unlikely (it's true, for instance, that there were chandeliers in Holland at this time, but here in New Netherland in the house of ordinary people it seemed out of place--I shall check on this today at work), mostly I was happy with the portrayal (17th-century material culture is one of the things I do for a living). John and Sarah are not exactly characters of depth and individuality, and fell into a pattern of Boy=leader and Girl=more thoughtful follower, which doesn't do much for me.

If you have a child who loves the Magic Tree House books, they will quite possibly enjoy this (it's at about the same reading level), and they will certainly learn something-- it is a reasonable introduction to the European history of New York. From the responses on Goodreads and Amazon, this seems like the sort of book that might be magical if you read it at a young enough age. Which I didn't.


  1. OMG, I didn't think anyone else had this book! I guess I was the right age when I read it because I loved it. I still think the train as a time travel portal works really well. Can't stand the gender stereotyping more commonly found in older stories, though, that may put me off the book.

  2. Thank you!! I read this when I was nine or ten, I think (back in the early '60s, anyway), and was just recently thinking about it and wondering how I could find out the title so I could read it again....

  3. I wish there was a study packet for this book. We are reading it with our 2nd grade class and while remote learning we were hoping to find some materials on line . None found :(


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