Young Michael Banks and his best pal Kate are visited by the apparent ghost of an old horse-riding mentor of Michael's and given what purport to be virtual-reality kits yet which are in fact time-travel devices, made and supplied by a group called CyberTimeSurfers Inc. These have not been delivered for use as toys: it is important that Michael and Kate travel back to the time of the American Revolutionary War to save the life of Michael's ancestor John Banks, a soldier under Lafayette, as otherwise John's whole lineage, Michael included, will disappear from history. After various adventures, the kids succeed in their assigned task and within the allotted timespan.
Elements of the tale are of course pretty arbitrary. Most importantly, there is no real rationale presented as to why the task has suddenly become necessary -- since Michael is already alive and kicking it's evident that this particular timeline ain't bust, so why does it need fixing? Similarly, there's no reason given as to why CyberTimeSurfers should care at all whether Michael and all his ancestors back to John should survive rather than any other lineage; perhaps Michael or one of his descendants is going to do something important for the human race -- who knows?
There is a rationale for the book, though. This is a novel aimed at young adults -- youngish young adults. Michael is a Black American, Kate is a female American. Michael is getting flak at school from his peer group because he is crazy keen on the honky sport of equestrian eventing. Kate, whose key sport is swimming, is on the verge of capitulating to the societal myth that there are theoretical -- as opposed to artificial -- limits to what women can achieve, as symbolized by her habit of funking out just before important school swimming races. Both, through their adventure in the past, learn to buck the imposed stereotypes and be -- and be proud to be -- what they most importantly are, irrespective of colour or gender: human beings. They discover their genuine identities.
This is a very attractively published book, complete with neat little maps to keep one in touch with events on the ground during the War of Independence adventures. The copy-editing is not quite what it should have been -- "But the force of the blow had knocked John to the floor with such force that Michael had been yanked off his feet and pulled down on his back on top of John." -- and the writing, which occasionally veers into didacticism, is as a whole rather flat: we are told about the musket fire but do not smell it; we are told about horseback chases but do not hear the thud of hooves or share the fear of the pursued. Nevertheless, this is a jolly enough tale to while away a few hours, and of course its subtexts, its messages, are important for its designated readership.
There is a further message that the author may not have intended to convey. John Banks was a genuine historical personage, one of the relatively few Black freemen to fight for Independence during the Revolutionary War. In this book -- as presumably was the case in reality -- he does so because he believes that the best hopes of all Americans, Black and White, lies in self-rule for the colonies. Of course, Blacks were to discover that such beliefs were illusory; a long and bloody history of the oppression of Black Americans was to follow, and it is still the dismal case that, despite all legislative measures, they do not enjoy full equality -- for one among many stark evidences of this we need look no further than at the comparative rates of capital convictions and executions between the different skin-colours. Of course, there's no reason at all to believe that matters would have been any better, and they might well have been even worse in the shorter term, had the revolution failed and the British remained in power. Yet the ghost of John Banks, looking back from today, would surely be wondering bitterly exactly what it was he fought for.
Any reader of this novel will wonder the same -- and it is good that they should do so. For this reason alone Through the Wormhole would be recommended reading.
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© John Grant 13 July 2002