Flashback Fridays: Time as it is cannot stay, nor as it was cannot be . . .”

You’re a skinny, ragged boy who has spent his life locked away, abused and mostly alone except for what help his half-brother can give him.  One night, a construction job opens an escape route out of your prison, and you slip away, journey along the canal, and take the most extraordinary journey back in time.

Do you remember:

A Chance Child by Jill Paton Walsh (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c1978)

Time travel is one of those odd conventions in fiction that can be either fantasy or science fiction depending on the way it’s used.   In this book it is a fantastical device, never explained within the context of the story.  In essence, a time slip.   It allows a young illegitimate boy who has spend his whole life abused and neglected to go on an extraordinary journey.  Creep’s life up to the start of the story sounds fairly brutal and awful. His mother hates him and denies his existence, his half brother Christopher is the only one who cares about him and tries to help him.

But a fantasy twist of fate, on the night he escapes his confinement sends him on a journey back in time to the mid-nineteenth century.  In Britain, it is the start of the industrial age, where children work in factories and mines just struggling to survive.  Creep’s new world is still a fairly harsh one, but the boy’s strength of spirit and personality help him to persevere and gain friends and employment.  Meanwhile, in the modern times, Christopher searches frantically for his brother, desperate to find the missing boy.   There’s an interesting bit of a happy ending involved–but it’s suitable to the story and not over done.  I won’t give the whole of it away here.

This is one of those fantasy novels that can–if a teacher is flexible, work equally well as a historical fiction text.  Jill Paton Walsh uses the tool of time travel to take readers back to the Industrial revolution and open our eyes to the often horrific conditions that children were forced to work in.  While this book is a middle grade story, the author still impresses on her audience the kinds of things that could happen that would maim or even kill a child working in a dirty factory for long hours and little pay.  In fact the author dedicates her book to the children she read about in her research and used as part of her story.  I’m going to quote that dedication here:

To: Robert Blincoe, poorhouse apprentice; Thomas Moorhouse, aged nine, a collier; Margaret Leveston, aged six, a coal bearer; Witness No. 96, aged sixteen as far as he could guess, a nailer; Jacob Ball, aged twelve, a dish mold runner; Joseph Badder, pinner, who was sorry to beat little children;  Joseph Hebergam, a worsted spinner from seven years old, whose mother wept to see him grow crooked; William Kershaw, aged eight, a “piecener” whose mother beat his master over the head with a billy roller; Emanuel Lovekin, mining butty, who learned to read and write while lying injured; and many others whose names and stories I have made use of in this book in one way or another, and to innumerable others like them. –J.P.W

The author did her research in writing this book, and I think it shows.  It’s a book I’ve never been able to forget despite my many other works of historical fiction that I’ve read.  The book was awarded The Phoenix Award in 1998.  I hadn’t heard of this particular award before, but I’m happy I looked it up.  The award is one that seeks to honor an English language children’s book published 20 years earlier that did not win any major literary award at the time.  (Thus the image of the phoenix).  I think it’s well deserving of such an award.

Ms. Walsh has written a number of historical fiction novels–both for children and adults.  She’s also written a handful of other science fiction and fantasy stories for children. Including The Green Book (1982) which takes place with colonists on another planet and Torch (1988) that takes place in a future world where technology has regressed and the world has forgotten much of its own story.

What time travel stories are your personal favorites?  Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on October 18, 2013, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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