It’s the Social Security Numbers That Get You: Locked in Time

Nore is still trying to recover from the unexpected death of her mother when she receives still more shocking news: her father has just remarried, and is planning to spend the summer with his new wife and their two children in their old plantation home in Louisiana. He invites Nore to stay, partly because, now that the school year is out, Nore has nowhere else to go, but also because he wants Nore to get to know their new family. Nore is angry and uncertain at best—especially after she meets her new stepmother, Lisette, and gets a distinct sense of DEATH DOOM DEATH.

Which is particularly odd since, as it will soon become clear, Lisette’s major issue isn’t death, but rather that she’s Locked in Time.

With typical speed, Lois Duncan lets Nore and readers know that all is not normal with Lisette or her two kids, Gabe and Josie. Oh, Lisette is friendly enough—more than friendly, even welcoming. She seems delighted to have Nore there, doing everything she can to celebrate her stepdaughter’s arrival. And Gabe is very good looking—so good-looking that Nore begins to feel all kinds of unexpected feelings and long term Lois Duncan readers know to go on instant alert.

(I don’t know if a good-looking high school kid once broke Duncan’s heart, or if, as a parent, she felt the need to warn readers about the dangers of judging boys on appearances alone, but I can definitely say that this is a theme.)

But thirteen year old Josie has, it seems, issues—though frankly, in her first scenes, it seems that her major issue is that her mother has no idea how to parent (which will turn out to be ever so slightly ironic). Oh, sure, she seems to have more than one actual memory of something that happened 65 years ago which her mother doesn’t want to talk about, but don’t we all?

The real problems start happening after Nore takes a trip into the nearby town with her new stepfamily—who are recognized as being suspiciously familiar to a family that lived there just twenty years back, and by suspiciously familiar, I mean, they have the same names and look exactly the same as that family, which, yes, suspicious. By this point, most readers will have started to figure out what’s going on.

Even on my first read, I felt a certain sense of irritation: I got that Lisette, Gabe and Josie really wanted to return home (not to mention that if you abandon a house for more than twenty years, or even attempt to rent out the house for more than twenty years, things can happen) but at the same time, the text is clear: this is a small town in southern Louisiana where very few, if any, interesting things are happening. So—I’m expecting the town to not notice that every twenty years or so, a widow with two children—or a recently remarried woman with two children, who all happen to have the same exact names, just happen to reappear in the same exact house? If this was a slightly larger town, sure, but as it is, Lisette is easily recognized after just one visit, even though she manages to brush off the incident with a great deal of charm.

(ABC’s Forever deals with a similar issue by having its ageless immortal character hang out in the vastness of New York City—and even there, Henry Morgan occasionally runs into people he previously met, a more realistic—I can’t believe I just typed that—take on this.)

It takes Nore a bit longer to realize what’s going on. To be truthful, it takes Gabe outright telling her what’s going on—and then, nearly drowning her—before she works it out, and then, she has another problem: finding proof (besides the drowning) so that she can save her father, and herself, from these three people who will never, ever age, and need to prey on wealthy men to survive.

Once again, Duncan does a credible job of addressing a major teenage (and, to be fair, adult) fear: that if you are in trouble or danger, even those closest to you—perhaps especially those closest to you, those who should, in theory, be protecting you—won’t believe you. It’s a theme that comes up again and again in her books. Granted, often what these kids are trying to claim sounds unbelievable—astral projection, teachers using students as mediums to collect more artworks from dead people, and now, three people who can’t die and never age and don’t have the sense to change their names. But regardless, it’s a theme that feels very real: that if you are accused of doing something, you won’t be believed. Duncan also deals with stepparents on a frequent basis: some are good, some bad, but in all cases, that fear of not being believed is strong.

Granted, what I had problems believing wasn’t so much that some voodoo rites had made these three eternally young—I watch genre TV, I’m good with this—but rather, how they handled the problem. In all sorts of small ways. For instance: Gabe points out that the three of them have no ordinary way of obtaining birth certificates and social security numbers, and therefore driver’s licenses and other necessary information. I believe that, absolutely—though I’d also think that over the past century they would have worked just a touch harder to get in touch with, say, less authorized ways of obtaining identification—but bringing up that point just raises several more issues. For example, how, without driver’s licenses, did they buy a car? Since Lisette is surviving on very large sums of inherited money, how exactly is she handling any taxes or draining her now dead husband’s accounts without some form of identification? How are they renting homes in these various cities they are travelling to? Property taxes? Legal assessments? The novel gives a quick nod to at least one of those problems by noting that Lisette doesn’t get a phone installed at the mansion, strongly implying that she can’t, but exactly how is she claiming ownership of the mansion under these circumstances? I can’t help but think that illegal identification can’t be that difficult to get, under the circumstances.

And since they aren’t using legal identification anyway, why on earth are they even bothering to keep the same first names? Surely changing names would be safer—and make no mistake, two of the three are concerned about safety.

And I also find myself disagreeing with one of the central premises of the novel, which is that Josie and Gabe will remain locked into the same mental and emotional age, just because they remain at the same physical age. Granted, their mother still doesn’t seem to have learned any actual parenting skills, but Gabe, at least, was actually married to someone he deeply loved, something that I would have thought would have left a mark. And while Josie may be physically stuck at the age of 13, she’s lived now for well over a century. She has the memories of far more, which should have taught her….something, I guess. It might have worked for me if Josie was somehow unaware of the passage of time, but she isn’t. She has the memories. She has the knowledge. And yet, she’s thirteen, not one hundred and something in a thirteen year old body.

And that, in turn, leads to the fundamental flaw of the novel: Locked in Time wants to explore what it would be like to be permanently stuck at the age of thirteen and seventeen for all time, but doesn’t really want to explore it. The practical issues of legal identification/money/property taxes are all vaguely acknowledged, but mostly handwaved. Josie’s despair—and of all three of the eternal characters, she is probably the one most in despair—is touched on, but again, not explored. There is a moment where Josie is a bit upset because a cute guy she has a crush on is interested in Nore, not Josie—but the envy is a surface sort, not the sort of “I’m thirteen, and will be thirteen, and I’m never going to have anything like this,” which might have worked better. Instead, Josie is mostly upset because she doesn’t get to party.

Locked in Time repeats several traditional Lois Duncan motifs: the well meaning, loving, but ultimately misunderstanding parent; the mystery that turns out to be thanks to supernatural causes; the girl who needs to be rescued, often by a younger person in a sibling role; the taut suspense. It has, for a Duncan novel, a surprisingly leisurely ending (most of them end quite abruptly), where we actually know what happens to everyone. But the setup has too many holes to be ultimately convincing, even if I suspect the book will please most Lois Duncan fans.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.


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