Sunday, December 6, 2015

It's About Time (1984) by Bernal C. Payne, Jr

Thanks to the popular Back To the Future movies, there was no shortage of time travel fantasy books in the 80s. This book's plot, where a pair of siblings travel back in time to the 50s and meet their parents as teenagers, is actually even closer to the first movie than other copycat books coat tailing on Back To the Future's popularity. However, since the first movie came out in 1985 and this book was first published in 1984, could the screenwriter actually have been inspired by this little known YA book? Judge for yourself.

The protagonist, sixteen year old Chris Davenport, begins the story by telling us all about his family. What they look like, his parents' occupations, how his father's parents died in a car accident when Chris was a baby and the fact that his parents met as teenagers. His reports are conversational in tone, as if we are there to see everything. 

Chris tells of how he and his sister Gail were rummaging around through their parents' old stuff in the attic on Christmas Eve 1983. They read their mother's old diary entry for the day when she had her first date with their father on Christmas Eve 1955. The two had bumped into each other while shopping and George (the father) invited Liz (the mother) to his family's home that night to decorate their Christmas tree.

Gail says how she wishes she knew more about their meeting and she can't just ask her parents about it because this wouldn't be much of a book that way. Chris tells her about an article he read in which a psychic was able to visit her dead husband by staring at an old photo of him and going back in time. So the two stare very hard at the Christmas Eve 1955 photo of their parents and wish themselves into the past.

Chris and Gail find themselves in their attic in 1955. In a too-good-to-be-true coincidence, the 1955 owners are in Florida on vacation. The twosome marvel at their retro surroundings and debate the merits of panicking (Chris) or going on to watch their parents' meeting (Gail). They decide to go exploring in the neighborhood. They look at the current newspaper and find that they've missed their wished-for date by only one day. It is December 23, 1955. They buy some burgers and fries with their modern money (wouldn't the money have a 1980s date on it?) for only a dollar and two cents.

Next the kids head over to the high school, where they see their teenage father, who went by the name Sonny, showing off in his red hot rod. A girl named Becky gets in the car with them, and they realize it is Gail's future English teacher. They overhear another girl call their father a fathead and turn to see that she is their mother. Liz drives off with another guy, whom Chris and Gail are also familiar with. It's a young version of their good family doctor friend who delivered Chris and Gail, Dr. John Bennett.

what Sonny's 1930 Plymouth hot rod might have looked like
It's a stereotypical 1950s afternoon. Everyone heads to the same hamburger joint after school. Sonny is heckled by two tough guys who want to drag race with him. One of them asks, "You callin' me chicken, Sonny boy?" when Sonny insults him and turns him down. Eventually Sonny and Wild Bill do race, and goody-goody Liz is the only one to not come out and congratulate Sonny when he wins. 

Chris and Gail then become curious to see their father's parents, the ones who died in an accident when they were babies. They walk to their father's old house and make up an excuse to talk to their grandparents, becoming emotional when they have to leave. 

Thinking about how worried their parents must be in 1983, the kids try to make it back to their own time. For some reason, the 1955 picture and Liz's diary time traveled with them - so there are two copies of Liz's diary in 1955? - but then they realize that they need a modern picture to get back to modern times. Luckily, like all teenage boys, Chris happens to have a current picture of his parents in his wallet. Unluckily, no amount of staring at the photograph spurs any time traveling. Chris decides that they just aren't ready mentally to return to their own time yet. The two decide to watch some television and try to sleep.

Next day, the two head down to the shopping center where their parents ran into each other and began dating. They see Sonny and Liz headed towards each other and Gail (why does the girl always have to screw things up?) accidentally runs into Sonny instead. Thus the conflict of the story is established. Were Chris and Gail ever born? They decide they must stay in 1955 and try to get their parents together some other way.

Predictably, Sonny goes off with Becky and Liz with John. After some spying, Chris and Gail find the whole gang down at the ice skating pond. Chris comes up with the idea of wrapping scarves around their faces so no one will remember their 1955 meeting with them in 1983. Which seems pretty conceited. I mean, who remembers some random kids they met a couple of times twenty eight years ago?

Gail meets Sonny's younger sister, her aunt Alice, and pumps her for information regarding Sonny, Liz and their respective dates. The author throws in a mild incest joke when Alice suggests that Sonny might ask Gail on a date. Gail declines. We do find out that Sonny is no more of a fan of Liz's than she is of him. Chris decides to get out on the ice and try to knock the two of them together. This maneuver doesn't spark a friendship, as Liz totally blames Sonny for the incident because he was showing off on the ice. Sonny accuses Liz and John of skating like senior citizens. Still, amid the argument there is an obvious spark between the two of them. 

Gail then says that they need God's help in this matter (it's not really a Christian novel) and they head toward their church. There's a different priest there than the one they're used to in the 80s, Father Dooley. While praying, Chris and Gail begin to disappear, which causes Gail to faint. Gail's fainting catches Father Dooley's attention and they privately tell him the whole story.

At first Father Dooley thinks they are pulling a practical joke on him, possibly orchestrated by Sonny. Not even the 1983 Polaroid budges his stance. Then Chris shows him his digital watch with built-in calculator that he purchased at Target. Father Dooley begins asking a lot of questions about the future. He is flabbergasted that Ronald Reagan is president in 1983 and horrified to realize that he himself is long dead. The priest is still set on the whole thing being an elaborate prank, causing Gail to wail that their 1983 priest would have believed them. Father Dooley is in shock, because Father Ryan has just landed a job in the parish and no one knew about him yet. He tells the kids to come back the next day. Chris decides that their parents' must have been thinking negative thoughts about each other to cause their disappearing act, and changed their mind to bring them back again. (And Chris is always right, if you haven't noticed. He's a boy.)

Back at the house, the kids notice that both their mom's diary and the 1955 photo have gone blank. They attend mass the next day and notice Sonny and Liz casting furtive glances at each other all during the service. They meet up with Father Dooley again, who gives them another round of questions about the world of 1983. Finally he admits that he believes their story and agrees to help them.

Father Dooley's plan is to invite both Sonny and Liz to participate in putting on a Christmas charity dinner for some old folks. Other teenagers join the group, including Chris and Gail (so that Chris can continue narrating the story). One girl openly flirts with Sonny, but he mostly ignores her. Liz snips at Sonny about his hot rod. When it's time to load the food in the vehicles, Father Dooley's car breaks down, throwing a wrench in the plan to force Sonny and Liz to carpool together alone. Chris and Gail tag along with them, again so that Chris can continue to tell his point of view of the story.

Sonny and Liz argue and Sonny misses a stop sign and gets pulled over by a cop. For some reason, Liz abruptly has a change of heart and explains that she was browbeating Sonny at the time of the incident. The cop lets him off and Sonny and Liz warm to each other. 

Everyone arrives at the nursing home in good spirits, but then Becky shows up to spoil things. Becky quickly assesses the situation and decides she doesn't stand much of a chance. She tells everyone how Sonny will not be graduating this year because he is flunking too many classes. This is actually good news for Chris and Gail, as their mother is a grade below their father and will have him to herself, without Becky, for a year. Becky finally storms out and slinks down on a chair in despair, making sure that Sonny can see her.

Liz offers to tutor Sonny (whom she calls George) in his problem subjects. She also admits to liking him. Before Sonny can respond, a woman from the nursing home comes up and begs Liz to play for them on the piano. Just when it looks like Chris and Gail are out of the woods, they spy Sonny leaving with Becky. When Liz sees this, she begins beating out angry songs...but then Sonny comes back alone in his father's car. It turned out he didn't want to take finicky Liz home in his hot rod for fear of another verbal spanking. 

Chris and Gail say goodbye to Father Dooley. They go back to the house, having decided it was time to go back to 1983. Before they leave, they notice that the 1955 photograph is no longer blank. It is a picture of teenage Sonny and Liz standing in front of a mantel with a winking Father Dooley. When they arrive home, they find that no time had passed.

Further Book Notes:

  • The Davenports are a little too perfect to be believable. Chris raves about how good-looking his middle aged parents are, cares about his family history and never fights with his sister.
  • Seriously, they never fight. It almost feels incestuous, especially when Chris narrates stuff like, "She slid her big green eyes over in my direction." I dunno. Just sounds unnatural to me. 
  • The way in which Chris and Gail time travel is pretty lame. Wishing on a picture? No time machines or magic portals? No mad scientists or deLoreans? It's too easy. Even Christopher Reeve in Somewhere in Time had to try several times before his astral projection worked.
  • The author (and not coincidentally, Chris) seems fascinated with classic cars. There are pages of descriptions of the cars that were driven in 1955, many from the 30s and 40s.
  • Chris is sure that none of the teenagers in 1955 have ever even heard of or care about drugs. That sounds like how most of us look at the past through rose-colored glasses most of the time. Though I can't imagine anyone in 2015 claiming that no one in 1987 did drugs, so maybe it's true. The author does seem to have a keen understanding of the time period.
  • Not only are the 1950s idealized, but the 1980s are made out to seem a lot more dangerous than they were. "These people could walk outside at night without any fear of being mugged before they got to the end of the block." Somehow I made it from 1980 to the present day without ever being mugged. I'm also sure there was plenty of crime back in the 1950s, just as there has been since the beginning of time.
  • Gail is only one year younger than Chris, and it comes off kind of sexist that she seems so much less intelligent and more dependent than he does. (Getting in the way of their parents' meeting, fainting, looking to Chris to come up with all the ideas, etc.) 
  • The dialogue throughout the book is fairly realistic-sounding without going over the top with it, e.g. there's no "Sit on it!" or "Hot dog, daddio!" every other line just to show how endearing the 50s were.  
  • Teenage Liz is rather unlikable. She is described as thinking she is above everyone else and takes every opportunity to cut Sonny down. When she and Sonny finally get together, you get the feeling she will keep his balls stored in her purse and that he will have to change quite a bit to keep her. Of what little we get to see of 1983 Liz, there is nothing to show that she still has this personality or what happened to change it. 
  • While doing a little research on the book, I found a post by someone claiming to have had Bernal C. Payne, Jr as their fifth grade teacher. (The back book flap does say that he was a teacher.) The person said that Mr. Payne was convinced that Steven Spielberg had ripped him off with BTTF and had looked into a lawsuit that apparently never went anywhere. Though the similarities are not as compelling as Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time and the movie The Village (now THAT was a disgustingly obvious rip-off), I guess I could see where he might have had a case.  
  • The author didn't write any more books of this nature. It's too bad, too. I know I snarked on this novel a little, but it really was a fun, fast read. How about a sequel featuring Chris's children (assuming he didn't marry Gail) and what they think of the 80s? Or maybe 1983 Chris and Gail could time travel to 2015?