Friday, August 6, 2010
Review & Author Interview - Don't Know Where, Don't Know When by Annette Laing
Laing, Annette. Don't Know Where, Don't Know When (The Snipesville Chronicles Book 1).
Confusion Press. 2007. ISBN 0979476941.
What a nightmare.
Hannah Dias, California Girl with Attitude, and Alex, her laid-back brother, have moved from exciting San Francisco to boring Snipesville, Georgia. Life doesn't improve when they meet Brandon, a dorky kid who is plotting his escape from the Deep South, and the weird Professor, who has a strange secret.
Suddenly, the kids are catapulted thousands of miles and almost seventy years to England during World War Two.
They fall into a world of stinging nettles, dragon ladies, bomb blasts, ugly underwear, stinky sandwiches, painful punishments, and non-absorbing toilet paper. They learn so much more than they could ever learn in a history class. Not that they want to learn it.
But they can't go home unless they find George Braithwaite, whoever he is, and whatever it is that he has to do with Snipesville.
Ms. Laing was so nice to send me a copy of her book to review. I confess that I was a little skeptical about whether or not I would like it once I discovered it was about time travel to WWII England. While I am currently in a Masters program in History and intend to get my PhD in History, I'm really not a fan of 20th century. I am particularly not interested in WWII, which my Grandfather says makes me un-American. That said, I decided to keep an open mind. I'm really glad I did. I'm also unveiling my new rating system for this book, which I'm excited about.
Laing does something here that a lot of authors struggle with. She incorporates mundane elements of daily life from the past in her book and makes it interesting. We learn about the food, what was considered luxuries in the 40's, and what was involved with being a dentist in the early 20th century. She does this in a way that appeals to young adults without being condescending. Further, this a book that also is "grown up" enough to be appreciated by adults.
These are everyday kids with everyday issues thrown into the past unexpectedly ala "Pleasantville". Which provides the plot with a mystery and also allows for the reader to better understand what the characters are experiencing. What I also liked was the fact she had an African American character thrust into a time period where he wasn't an integrated member of society, but he was a kid in a weird situation that happened to be African American - it wasn't the driving point to the character.
If I have any complaints about the book it's the beginning. There wasn't a lot of set up to the plot; the characters were thrust in together quickly and it took a while to get a feel for who they were because of it.
Over all I truly enjoyed the book. I give this 4 eyeglasses.
Ms. Laing was so kind to answer some questions about the book I had. So here is my interview:
1.I guess the first question I have is the most obvious, why World War II era England for their first time leap?
The idea for Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When, set in England in 1940, came before the idea for the Snipesville Chronicles series. Many books have been set in World War II England, but few involve time-traveling kids, and none (to my knowledge) feature time-traveling American kids. I also just loved the contrast between the attitudes toward kids in England at this time, and attitudes in America today.
2.You seem to explore aspects of history that aren’t really studied in history classes, like what it is like to work as a dentist during WWI. Was that your intention? Will you continue to do so in further adventures? Yes, that is deliberate. I hate the way history is taught in America: The emphasis on breadth in the typical history class reduces the subject to a litany of names and dates, and learning history becomes a rather soulless exercise as a result. I wanted to give readers a chance to focus on the fascinating questions of how and why we as human beings change over time and space—and how we don’t. As for Brandon being a dentist’s apprentice…I was casting around for a suitable occupation for him. I don’t remember how I came up with dentistry, except that I found out on the web that some dentists were still taking apprentices during the First World War. Perhaps I was inspired by the fact that I have a Scottish cousin who’s a dentist, and my Scottish grandfather (on whom Mr. Gordon is partly based) was a pharmacist. I spent many happy hours as a kid alongside my grandmother (who also worked in the hospital pharmacy) wearing a specially made white coat, and labeling bottles of nasty-looking medicines. All of these things probably influenced my choice for Brandon. Oh, and a visit to the Edwardian dentist’s office in Beamish Open Air Museum in England—you’ll find I’ve described the dentist’s house almost exactly as it appears in Beamish!
3.Did you have a set idea in mind as to who your characters’ personalities were, or did they surprise you with their development during the course of the writing process? I don’t think any character emerges intact from the initial stages! But Hannah was wonderfully difficult from the start, and I always had a good sense of Brandon. Alex has become much better developed, but he is also the most conflicted and vulnerable of the three main characters. The biggest surprise for me was Mrs.D. She began as a character based in appearance and manner on my dear friend Mary and her mother, but as I wrote, she quickly morphed into one of my old teachers in England, with influences from the mother of an English friend. She kept her initial appearance, but her character absolutely changed to become much more fierce than I intended.
4.I really enjoyed how you approached Brandon’s experiences as an African American visiting two time periods where he would encounter not only prejudice because of his color, but also a curiosity because many of the people he encountered just didn’t seem to know how to take him. It added some lightness to a subject that is very difficult. Was it intentional?
It never occurred to me to set the book in a small Georgia town without black characters, and Brandon was inspired by a lovely kid I met at one of my children’s workshops. All too often, black kids are portrayed in fiction only when race is an explicit focus of the book, such as books about slavery, or the Civil Rights movement. As I strove to avoid that trap, I was also wary of acting as though his skin color was not an issue: Skin color is almost always an issue, and Brandon is a proud member of a strong black family and community in the South. Rather than pretend racism does not exist for him in England, I tried to show a divergent and realistic range of responses that whites in an overwhelmingly white society like pre-1945 England would have had to a black person in their midst. I also wanted to show how Brandon, who is such a kind and tough kid, would have coped with their reactions, through humor and anger depending on people’s intentions. As Brandon will discover, class often trumps race in English history. I have not sugarcoated his experience, but I’m proud that he has become a fully-rounded character who refuses to be stereotyped, and I’ve been inspired by the examples set by so many of the African-American students I taught as a college professor, who represented a divergent range of personalities and interests.
5.Poor Hannah had such a rough time of it, and was such an unlikeable character at times. What lesson do you think stuck out the most to her during her adventure?
I have to say that I suspect that many of those who disparage Hannah actually identify with her, but don’t want to admit it! What do you say, Jennifer?J She’s undeniably self-centered, but she does indeed have a very hard time. Her loyalty to her brother speaks well of her, I think, as does her courage. Hannah learned in 1940 that her attitude was unacceptable to the adults she met, but she’ll find that her outspokenness comes in handy at times during her adventures. So is the problem that Hannah is intrinsically “bad”, or that she needs to find out who she is and where she belongs?
The most important thing Hannah learned in Don’t Know Where, however, was to allow herself to love and to trust. Her relationships with Mrs. D. and Verity meant even more to her than is immediately apparent.
6.If you found yourself swept back in time somewhere, where would you like to be? What would be the time period you dread the most?
I suppose I would want to visit England in the 1930s—somewhere recent enough that I would speak the language, and that I would have access to some decent medical care (although no antibiotics!) That way, I could also dodge World War II, and see all the historic buildings that the Nazis later destroyed—the churches in London alone would keep me busy. Where would I most dread? England during the Black Death in the mid-14th century, I guess! Too scary! Thanks for the great interview, Jennifer!