Modern Lit: Blackout, by Connie Willis

Blackout (All Clear, #1)Stranded

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

England, summer of 1945. England, 2060. Time travel has been a reality for a couple of decades, and three young historians are getting set to study England’s heroic defiance of Hitler in the early stages of WWII. Merope, contemp name Eileen, is observing the effects of children evacuated from London to the countryside, while Michael, posing as an American correspondent, will be studying instances of bravery at Dover during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Polly, whose real name is no anachronism, wants to scrutinize the effects of the terrible Blitz on Londoners. The first quarter of Blackout is devoted to the ins and outs of time travel and the mechanisms of getting the trio to their approved destinations at the proper time. Then the adventure begins.

Without resorting to spoilers, let’s just say that all three of our protagonists have bitten off much more than they expected to have to chew. Eileen, working as a parlor maid at a grand country estate, is saddled with numbers of children, but the street urchins, Alf and Binney, provide her with challenges irksome, comical, and at times, poignant. Another memorable character from this scenario is the redoubtable Lady Caroline, plummy, haughty, and useless, proclaiming her determination to “do her bit.” Mike, trying desperately to escape from the village where he has been dropped to the action at Dover, is snared by the elderly, eccentric Commander Harold, hell bound for Dunkirk in his leaky old tub. Polly, forced to seek shelter at a church during an air raid on her very first evening, is befriended by the others at the shelter. One of those is a famous Shakespearean actor who admires Polly but can see through her cover stories.

The final portion of the novel deals with the separate realizations of the trio that, for some inexplicable reason, their return “drops” won’t work. The retrieval team has not arrived to bring them back to the future, and the present is very grim indeed. Has Mike done something that will alter history? What has happened in 2060 Oxford? How will the time travelers survive, now that their return dates have passed?

Willis is masterful in her portrayal of all of her characters, both modern and historic, major and supporting. (In some sections, the supporting cast steals the show!) Equally amazing is her ability to convey the atmosphere of wartime Britain, and to bring her readers along for the ride. My sole complaint is that the trio’s angst over not being to operate their “drops” is overly repetitious. But nothing’s perfect, and the people who inhabit Blackout are well worth spending time with.

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