Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Act your age

Quite often reading a novel requires a certain suspension of belief. Fantasy and science-fiction are usually not realistic, but many ordinary stories also contain elements of fantasy. As much as we might wish to receive an admission letter to Hogwarts we know it's not a real place, and that Uncle Vernon was unfortunately right when he said "there's no such thing as magic." But we accept this alternate reality within limits because it's entertaining. You don't have to believe in vampires to enjoy Dracula or the Twilight series. As long as the story doesn't contradict the real world in an unbelievable way and the characters act appropriately for their age, time, and setting, there's no problem. Tom Sawyer and Tom Fitzgerald (The Great Brain) are not grown-up and they get into the kind of mischief you'd expect from kids their age. It's part of what makes reading so much fun for many of us, and we get to spend a few hours in another world or remembering what it was like to be young. But when a kid in a book starts talking and acting like an adult and doing the kinds of things an adult does, it breaks that spell.

Several years ago we listened to a thoroughly charming book when we went on a family vacation to Moab, Utah. I'd gotten tired of having to switch out movies for the kids every couple of hours during the drive and thought an audiobook might be a nice change. I read a review for Nick of Time by Ted Bell and it sounded like the perfect story for a road trip.

Twelve-year old Nicholas McIver lives with his parents and 6 year-old sister, Kate, in the lighthouse on Greybeard Island in the English Channel. He spends as much time as possible in his little boat, Stormy Petrel, sailing around the island. But his adventures take a turn when Nick and Kate discover a small wooden chest washed up on the beach, and then run into a fearsome character named Billy Blood who is looking for it. If Nick didn't know better, he'd think Billy and his companion Snake Eye looked just like real pirates from the books he reads. But it's 1939, the eve of World War II, and pirates are a thing of the past, aren't they? At any rate, Nick has enough to worry about when he discovers that his father's "bird watching" hobby is actually spying on the activities of German U-boats in the Channel. When his dog, Jip, disappears right out from under his bed, and a nasty threatening note is left behind by Billy Blood, Nick seeks out the help of the mysterious Lord Hawke who shut himself away after his own children disappeared mysteriously 5 years earlier.

With Nazis and pirates and time travel and danger and heroism it has all the elements of the great adventure stories I read as a kid and it kept the whole family interested through a long drive. None of us knew anything about sailing or nautical terminology but it was a fun adventure story with some real history mixed in (be warned, however, that the brutality and reality of sea battles may not be for the faint of heart). So, when I saw The Time Pirate: A Nick McIver Time Adventure (#2) I thought it might be another fun story.

By now Nazi soldiers have begun to occupy the nearby island of Guernsey. When Nick discovers a dusty old Sopwith Camel (WWI airplane) in an old barn he enlists his friend Gunner to restore it to working condition. The bi-plane had been flown by his father in the First World War and his father teaches him how to fly it. So far the story remains fun and "believable," but when Nick conducts a solo midnight raid on the Nazi base with spectacular success it begins to strain the limits of credibility. Before long his sister Katie is kidnapped by the pirate Billy Blood and Nick discovers a plot which imperils George Washington's defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown (which would affect the Americans latter ability to assist the British in WWII). The idea of a 12 year-old boy handily outsmarting pirates and assisting the Marquis de Lafayette to save America goes too far overboard. Nick talks and thinks like someone at least twice his age and maturity and any magic the story started with evaporates. Yes, I'm an adult but I doubt even kids would swallow it.

So, I'll recommend Nick of Time as a fun adventure story but I'll recommend skipping the rest of the series.

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