The Ship in the Garden, by Zetta Elliott, for Timeslip Tuesday

The Ship in the Garden, by Zetta Elliott (middle grade, independently published, 104 pages), this week's Timeslip Tuesday book, is many things in one--a fantasy story with magical beings, a story of 13 year old Scottish kids with non-magical worries, a story about the slave trade in Scotland, and a time travel story that sends one of the kids back in time into enslavement on a Caribbean island.

It starts with a school field trip to Pollok House, build by an 18th-century Glasgow merchants whose fortune was based on slavery.  The day is marred for Kofi when he's paired with Gavin, a racist tough who is determined to make him miserable.  Kofi is also a new kid, followed by rumors about what he did to get suspended from his previous school, and he's also a kid living with the sadness of his beloved Ghanaian grandmother's sickness.  

So things are already a lot for Kofi when the tour of Pollok House is full of weirdness with no logical explanation, including a shadowy doppelganger and sounds no one else hears (this part is great haunted house reading!).  Then he explores outside and finds a book Gavin nicked from the house's library, smeared with blood, lying on the ground near the replica of an 18th-century merchant ship. And then Gavin doesn't show when it's time to get back on the bus to school.

Kofi shares his worry that something's happened to Gavin with a Kaylee, a black classmate who seems like a possible friend. But Kaylee, who Gavin has also targeted because she is trans, refuses to care.  So Kofi goes back to the garden alone....and meets an urisk, a strange and lonely Scottish magical creature.  The urisk is trying to bring back his one friend, a Caribbean boy who was the enslaved page boy of the 18th century family.  Gavin was the offering he used to try to make this happen....

And though I could go on and on synopsizing, because there's a lot of story in this relatively slim book, suffice it to say that Gave has travelled back in time into enslavement in the Caribbean, and Kofi is determined to bring him back (partly because he doesn't want the other enslaved people to have to deal with a racist young Nazi bully in their midst, but a bit also because he is horrified by the wrongness of the whole thing).

But to save Gavin, Kofi must resist the urisk's schemes and deflections, and he must be brave enough to face the great Water Mother herself and make a sacrifice that tears at his heart.....all for a racist bully, who, it turns out, is furious about being saved....

Although most of the story is Kofi's first person point of view in the present, we also get glimpses of Gavin's life in the past.  It is tragic and grim, but it does give Gavin the chance to feel connection such as he lacked in the present.  It's not a redemption arc in which Gavin is magically en-nicened, but an explanatory arc with hope for change.  As for Kaylee, she's such a strong and vibrant character that when she's on the page we don't need to be in her head.   

Like I said, there's a lot of story here, and it kept me reading past my bedtime with much interest and enjoyment. Older middle grade fantasy readers will probably do the same, and they'll get some learning of Scottish and Carribean history in the process, and have thoughts provoked about the present as well. There's weight here of past and present sadness, but the fantastical elements, likeable main character, and the vivid pictures created by the fine writing relieve enough of the pressure to make it a (thought-provoking) pleasure for the reader (me).  I wish, though, (and this might be a matter of personal taste) that it had been less brisk and gripping, with more moments of inflection and reflection, smoothing the transitions, and giving space for the powerful moments to reverberate more clearly. 

For more about Zetta Elliott and how she came to write this particular book, here's a talk she gave over at her website--“‘I AM MYRTILLA’S DAUGHTER’: WEAVING SCOTLAND, SLAVERY, AND SITHS INTO HISTORICAL FANTASIES”  (well worth reading!)

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