Enchanted Thyme for Time Travel: The Time Garden

In The Time Garden, Edward Eager continued his trek through rewriting the works of Edith Nesbit with a sort of contemporary American spin (contemporary in a 1950s sense), this time choosing to be inspired by Nesbit’s The House of Arden. As in the Nesbit book, Eager sends his four characters—Ann, Roger, Eliza and Jack, from Knight’s Castle—hurtling back through time with the help of a magical creature, this one called a Natterjack (he looks a bit like a toad.) The Natterjack, using, in a horrible pun, magical thyme, allows them to visit Paul Revere’s Ride, the Underground Railroad, Queen Victoria, and Queen Elizabeth I (this last apparently in part thanks to a failure to specify which queen, let alone which Queen Elizabeth). As not in the Nesbit book, Eager also sends his characters back into two different books—Little Women and his own book from the previous year, Magic by the Lake.

Also, a brief glimpse of a phoenix. It’s all a little less confusing than it sounds.

Naturally, given the brevity of the book—I’d guess that it’s at least 100 pages shorter than The House of Arden, itself not exactly a lengthy book—none of these historical moments are exactly dwelled on, with the result that young readers who have never heard of the Underground Railroad (thanks to U.S. schools, a growing number) can be forgiven for finishing this book still not knowing anything about it. On a related note, Eager does seem perhaps a little too confident that his young readers are familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

And here and elsewhere, he is not particularly worried about painting an accurate historical picture. The Paul Revere sequence is taken strictly from the poem, and contains one scene that is decidedly not part of either the book or history (and which some readers may find problematic.) This can also lead him into some questionable historical moments, as when he depicts a Southern slaveholding family returning from a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – with their child. I don’t question that quite a few Southerners visiting the North would have gone to the play out of curiosity; I do question whether they would have allowed their children to attend.

In part, this is because, once again, Eager is interested in an amusing story, not social satire or lessons from history. Thus, the visit to Queen Elizabeth I’s court is packed with lines from Shakespeare, not quotes from the queen; the visit to Little Women contains an unexpected dragon encounter (in various rereads of Little Women I cannot remember a single appearance of a real life dragon) and so on.

Apart from the dragon, Eager does add another exciting and unexpected touch: when the children announce they are time travelers, as they do on a couple of occasions, they are believed. This doesn’t necessarily stop them from negative consequences – needing to do heavy cleaning in the past, getting tossed in the Tower of London (which does seem to be a frequent fate of many time travelers). But it does allow them to give the people of the past some information about the future—I would say perhaps far too much information—to Queen Elizabeth.

And yet, these revelations seemingly do nothing to change the future or present whatsoever. To be fair, some of this is said to the completely fictional Jo March and Laurie Lawrence, whose ability to change the future may be questioned. Still, I would think that knowing that she would eventually be executing the Earl of Essex should have at least slightly changed Queen Elizabeth’s dealings with him, not to mention all of her new found knowledge of airplanes, trains, cars and so on, carefully explained to her by Jack.

In part, this is handwaved off by Eager, who having unexpectedly sent a completely unhistorical Native American raiding party into 1775 Lexington and Concord, rather fudges things by saying that good deeds can affect the future, bad deeds, not so much. How exactly this works is further fudged by “magic” which is an excellent excuse for “I don’t really want to have to think of an explanation for this.” (Try it in your own fiction.)

Indeed, after that, the characters only worry about influencing the future and paradoxes once—when they encounter their own parents, rescuing their parents from the mess that Martha sent them into in Magic by the Lake. (In this book, the presence of the stereotypical native cannibals is much reduced.) Recognizing Martha, Katherine, Mark and Jane almost immediately, they are also able to recognize the potential issues with bringing those four back to their own time, and instead decide to send their parents back to the proper time, to avoid any issues. (Not before taking just the slightest bit of revenge on Aunt Jane, who has apparently not always been the easiest aunt to get along with.)

All of this, of course, means that the implications of time travel are barely even hinted at, even in a novel where people in the past accept and recognize time travel. And I find this, well, itchy. I don’t mind a world where Queen Elizabeth is warned in advance about the Spanish Armada. I do mind a world where she’s told airily not to worry about it – it was in part her worry that ensured that English ships were well equipped with cannon, and that later ensured the launching of the fireships which also helped to devastate the Spanish Armada. A Queen Elizabeth told not to worry about it might well assume that meant that weather would take care of the Armada—a not implausible scenario—and find herself facing conquering Spaniards in her palace at Greenwich. Or perhaps not, but already I’ve put more thought into this than Eager did.

And it’s not as if the influence of time, and perhaps more specifically aging, isn’t addressed elsewhere. The characters all agree that they prefer their parents as, well, parents. And Eager quickly establishes that Jack is definitely older in this book, interested in girls, and allowed to escort his younger sister and cousins through New York City and up to Boston. (In response to this touching trust, he spends the entire train ride chasing a girl.) This, alas, also means that Jack ends up missing many of the adventures, and even when he does get to go, he ends up getting distracted—as when he spends his time chatting up pretty Meg from Little Women, which also means, gasp, that he incorrectly identifies a dragon as a tyrannosaurus rex. Really, Jack. How could you?

Total sidenote: as it turns out, Concord, Massachusetts, has—or at least did have, back in the Civil War period—very strict laws against keeping dragons as pets. And here we thought the town was a bastion of liberty and freedom from unjust laws. I’m telling you.

Second total sidenote: also cleared up, the question of whether Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Bacon says not. In a fictional book. Which should be all the proof you need.

(Also, the bit about Francis Bacon is shortly followed by an Oz reference, which I heartily approve of.)

For all of my quibbles, I found this a more fun read than Magic by the Lake, possibly because the characters are, for the most part, more clearly drawn; partly because I found myself liking the Natterjack, for all his pro British and anti-American moments, more fun than the magical turtle, even if he is perhaps a bit too arrogant for someone also sporting a Cockney accent. The ending, too, is magical and satisfying, and this is well worth a quick read.

Mari Ness wouldn’t mind time travel if she could be guaranteed finding fine chocolate along the way. She lives in central Florida.


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