A Chance Child, by Jill Paton Walsh (1978, 185 pages) is a highly original and emotionally powerful time travel tale that for a few different reasons is unlikely to find many young fans. I’ll try to describe what makes the book less accessible than many middle grade novels, and also why I love it.
The story, set in Great Britain, opens with a skinny boy scrounging through debris at a dump, referred to as The Place. He is trying to find a suitable object in which he can take shelter from the rain so he can sleep. The dump is by a canal. Finally, he finds what he takes to be an old, dirty hut at the edge of the canal where he sleeps for a few hours. When he wakes up he sees a worker who is sorting lengths of chain beside the canal. The man speaks to him.
“What’s your name, then?” The child was silent. “What does your mother call you? said the man.
“She calls me that bugger, or that creep.”
“I’d fix on Creep, out of those two,” said the man.
“Here for long, then, are you?” said the man…
“Can’t stay here,” said the child. “Where could I go?”
“Either way. Cut goes two ways from here, like from most places.”
“The canal…The cut goes on, or back, from here,” said Jack.
“I’ll go back,” said Creep.
“Just as you say, gaffer,” said Jack.
The man shows Creep that the hut is actually a sort of primitive houseboat, basically a hut on a raft, and Creep floats away. Until I was halfway through the book I was waiting for the time travel part of the story to start. At that point I realized it had begun when Creep first floated away. But because the initial dump/canal setting, as well as the dialect and some vocabulary such as “gaffer” was unfamiliar to me, I had no way to date this scene. So when the next person Creep meets asks him, “Ast nivver seen a lock afore, then?” I was not immediately clued in that he not only had gone “back”on the canal but also back in time. The lack of this “oooh” moment was highly disappointing. The moment when the main character in a time travel story realizes they are in a different time period is usually a highlight of these books. Even rereading it, I am not sure Creep know he had gone back in time! I can’t think of any other time travel book in which the protagonist doesn’t realize they have shifted times!
The back story of the tale is that Creep was unwanted and severely neglected by his mother who kept him mostly in a closet. Creep never went to school or learned to read. Until he ran away, he survived by his brother giving him scraps of food. On his journey down the canal Creep meets two (unrelated) orphans, Tom and Blackie. The three team up and live like a little family on the houseboat. However, when Tom and Blakie interact with adults, Creep is always hanging around in the background, and adults never see him. This is somewhat believable as one can imagine that a neglected boy might be afraid of adults and want to remain hidden. But then, as a reader, you notice how Creep never eats. Then Tom says of him to Blackie:
“I don’t know what he is, but he i’nt real; sometimes I can hardly see him. He gets all fuzzy whenever we’ve a bite in our bellies. I can’t hardly see him at all now.”
Meanwhile, Creep’s brother is searches for him, and gets in trouble himself for running away, and has to meet with a social worker.
“Why did you run away?” the woman asked.
“I was looking for my brother,” Christopher said.
“You haven’t got a brother,” she said.
“No,” he said. “Not any more”–his voice shook–“but I used to have.”
“No, Christopher, none of your neighbors ever saw a brother. The social worker who deals with your family, says there are just the two of you, you and a sister.”
Is Creep real? Is he a ghost? Is he an angel? I can tolerate some ambiguity in a work of fiction; still, I would have preferred to know if Creep was real or not. Okay, so I guess this was magical realism and I hate magical realism.
But there were so many cool things about this book. Only a very skilled author could make such a strange choice of main character work. In the same way that Creep physically recedes into the background when Tom and Blackie are dealing with adults, he recedes into the background of the story somewhat. Often the main action is between Tom and Blackie, or Christopher and his sister. Creep doesn’t talk much, and we don’t really know what he is thinking. Although, Creep set out on his journey alone, the book is all about connections between family members and friends, and Tom and Blackie are such believable characters. I loved the dialogue, which shot straight to my heart. The three kids were so vivid for me, and I really cared about them.
There was so much historical detail in this book, too much for my taste. Creep goes back in time to the Industrial Revolution, and the author described in great detail the buildings, tools, and materials found at a mine, pottery factory, and textile mill along the way. I don’t think kids would relish this info. I often couldn’t really picture what she was talking about. But she effectively communicated how cold this Industrial Revolution landscape must have seemed to the three kids who are just trying to find work that will pay enough so they won’t go hungry.
Kids that can get past a lot of dialogue written in dialect, past the abundance of historical detail, and past the lack of an “aha” moment when Creep first slips into the past may be moved by this story as I was. A Chance Child leaves an impression. The book appears to be out of print now, but used copies are easy to find. The story this most reminds me of is The Midwife’s Apprentice, so may appeal to people who liked that novel.
For more middle grade book reviews follow the links at Shannon Messenger’s Blog.