Trading Places

In your typical time travel tale, a character travels into the past.  Less commonly, someone journeys forward in time. There are many novels in which a person from the past travels to present time. Such travelers are sometimes referred to as ghosts (ooooooh!). I believe there are time travel books in which someone from the future visits the present, though I haven’t read any yet. (If you encounter one of these travelers in real life, I’d be interested to know how the whole global warming thing worked out.) There aren’t too many stories in which one person travels forward, while another travels back and they switch places. But when this does happen the results can be amazing!

Charlotte Sometimes, Penelope Farmer , (1969, 174 pages) is such a book. This has long been one of my all-time favorite time travel stories. Charlotte is a new girl at a British boarding school in 1963. One morning she wakes up, and it’s the same bed, same school, but a different decade. She has gone back forty-five years! Yet, the other students from 1918 seem to know her as Clare. This happens several times. Charlotte figures out the real Clare has traveled forward to her time. Turns out, the bed Charlotte is sleeping in is the same one Clare slept in so many years ago and yeah,  it’s magic.

A problem an author has to solve when writing a time travel story where people switch places is how to make one person a believable stand-in for another. Farmer doesn’t quite say if the girls look exactly alike or only enough alike so no one notices the difference. It could be a little hard to believe either way but when I was reading Charlotte Sometimes, I had no problem just going with it.

The rules and ways of doing things at the school were different forty years before and it’s often hard for Charlotte to know how to act. Clare had a younger sister at the school, named Emily. Emily is the only one who can tell something weird is up with her sister.  Charlotte tells her the truth about what’s going on. At first Emily is freaked, but then she becomes Charlotte’s guide to 1918, showing her how things are done. Emily reminds Charlotte of her little sister, Emma, and the two become good friends.

The book is about Charlotte’s struggles. We are not shown how Clare is doing. We only find out via notes Clare leaves in the hollow leg of the bed in which both girls sleep, so many years apart. Actually, in both books reviewed in this post a kid gets a handwritten note from someone in another time. Loved, loved, loved this aspect of the books! In these days of emailing and texting, it’s special to get a real letter from someone. How much more impressive to get a letter from a different time!

Charlotte is pretty busy trying to manage her life, jumping back and forth between the present where she is a new girl at school which is hard enough, and the past which is even more tricky. She does stop to think about how it must be more difficult for Clare, though.  In many ways the pace of life was slower in the past and we know some of what it was like from books and movies. But to go into the future where life moves more quickly and so many things would be unfamiliar could be really scary.

One reason things are different in 1918 is because World War I is happening. Reading Charlotte Sometimes, you learn how life is different for everyone during a war. For example, the food wasn’t very good and there was less of it. Also, kids whose fathers were soldiers were worried about them dying. During one of her visits to the past, Charlotte is told she will need to sleep in a different bed. Will Charlotte be stuck in the past and Clare in the future?

I enjoyed reading Charlotte Sometimes as much the second time as the first. The plot of this book is unusual. On top of that, the main characters are so well described they seem like people you might know. You come to really care about what happens to them. Although the book was first published in 1969, it doesn’t seem old-fashioned.

Charlotte is often lonely and feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere. Neither she nor Clare have mothers, and their fathers are not available to talk with even by phone. Spending so much time pretending to be Clare, Charlotte sometimes feels like she’s forgetting who Charlotte is. She feels lost. The book creates a beautiful melancholy mood. Perhaps that unique mood is what inspired The Cure, a famous alternative rock group, to write a song titled Charlotte Sometimes, and an indie-rock singer-songwriter to also take the name.

Switching Well, Peni R. Griffin, (1993, 218 pages) is another trading places story. In this book, twelve-year-old Amber stands beside a well and wishes she could go back in time one hundred years. In an awesome coincidence, Ada, who lived one hundred years earlier, wishes she could live a hundred years in the future. Voila! They switch places. You guessed it, the well is a magic wishing well. Amber is still in San Antonio, Texas, when she travels back to 1891, but there are only a few familiar landmarks and her modern money is useless. She has to figure out how to survive. In 1991, Ada is frightened by the large metal boxes hurtling along the road. She also has a hard time getting used to people wearing clothes that show more of their bodies than she’s used to. People think the long dresses in which Ada feels comfortable look funny:

A Mexican boy a little older than Ada…grinned at her calling: “Hey, I like your outfit!” He wore practically nothing–a sleeveless shirt and trousers that didn’t even cover his knees.  Ada hurried on with her eyes averted.

Unlike in Charlotte Sometimes, the girls don’t actually trade identities, but they do trade roles. Ada is taken in by Amber’s family, and vice versa. Another difference is that we get to see how both girls are managing. This is hilarious at times! People from Amber’s regular time can’t figure out why Ada is mesmerized by babyish cartoons on TV. They don’t know she’s never seen TV before. They give her strange looks when she curtsies for adults and says things like “That’s just daisy!” Amber at first takes forever to put on all the layers of clothing that are the style in the late 1800’s, and learns the hard way that bikes in 1891 don’t have brakes.

Just as Charlotte in Charlotte Sometimes made a friend who served as a guide to the time period she was visiting, Ada and Amber both make a friend who teaches them what they need to know to get by. There’s a funny scene in which Ada asks her friend Violet why a character she saw on TV was not described in her history book. It dawns on Violet that Ada thinks everything on TV is real, and Violet believes for the first time that Ada truly is from the past:

“May I borrow a handkerchief?” (asked Ada.) Violet tore a thin, soft piece of paper out of a box on the nightstand. “So you don’t know about Kleenex, neither?”

The author shows pros and cons of both time periods. Feminism, the movement for women’s equality, and the roles of girls and women are a theme in this book. Ada’s mother in 1891 was organizing to get women the vote. (See Women’s Suffrage Movement.) Ada is also for equal rights. But her dad thinks women should only care about taking care of their house and children. Both Ada and Amber find this obnoxious. In fact, this was why Ada wished to live in the future in the first place. However, Amber made her wish at the well because she had just found out her parents might be getting divorced. Part of her wants to live in the past when divorce was rare.

The girls eventually long to go home to their own centuries. If you know anything about time travel stories, it goes without saying that won’t be easy. The well is magic, but it has rules. Certain conditions apply. Will the girls be smart enough to figure out those rules? Switching Well is jam-packed with details about what the girls find surprising about the time period they’re visiting. I enjoyed imagining how I would cope with the challenges Ada and Amber faced.

Next post:  Felines through Time: Time Traveling Cats.  Books: The Time Traveling Cat and the Great Victorian Stink, by Julia Jarmon, and Time Cat, by Lloyd Alexander


About Susan

I blog about middle grade and YA time travel books. I'm the author of Time Jump Coins.
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6 Responses to Trading Places

  1. Charlotte says:

    I hadn’t heard of Switching Well before–I’ll look for it! Thanks!

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