________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 32. . . .April 23, 2010



Chris McGowan.
Toronto, ON: Euphausia Press, 2010.
296 pp., pbk. & hc., $12.95 (pbk.), $22.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-9810831-0-0 (pbk.)
ISBN 978-0-9810831-1-7 (hc.).

Subject Heading:
Science-Experiments-Juvenile literature.

Grades 6-8 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Darleen Golke.

**** /4



“Brilliant! What would we do without an abacus?”

“It gets harder. The third-row beads are each worth one hundred, then one thousand . . .” Kate stifled a yawn. “With nine rows of beads, you can count up to hundreds of millions.”

She sighed.

“Watch this,” he continued, pushing the beads in two rows on the right back to the bottom again. “Say you wanted to enter 1524 –– a random number. You start with the fourth row from the right and move one of the beads to the top of its rod. That’s the one thousand.” He then moved five beads to the top of the third rod. “That’s the five hundred.” Next, he moved two beads to the top on the second rod, finishing off by sliding four beads to the top of the right-hand rod. “And that’s the twenty four. See.

It’s easy.” “If you say so.”

Crowded Planet’s latest hit, “High Water,” blared from the radio. “What’s that tiny black button at the bottom for?” Leaning on his shoulder, Kate reached down and pushed it with her finger. Suddenly, the room filled with brilliant blue light, silhouetting AP and his sister like shadows.

Then they disappeared.

A boring Littleton family trip to settle a relative’s estate in Saxton Burleigh, UK, takes an unexpected detour for 12-year-old AP and his 15-year-old sister, Kate, when they discover what appears to be an abacus among late Uncle Miles’ curios at his antique shop, Past Times. His scientific interest awakened, AP examines the device carefully; Kate presses “a tiny black button” on the device, and they find themselves in a forest, transported back to 486 AD England, the time of legendary King Arthur. Dressed in strange clothing and speaking “an ancient form of English,” the time-travellers ultimately join Arthur’s court, not the grand Camelot of legend, but “a sprawl of wooden buildings enclosed by a wooden fence.” Arthur, impressed by AP’s diving to retrieve his favourite dagger, takes special interest in AP and teaches him swordsmanship and survival skills. AP, the scientist, dazzles Arthur’s court with his inventions, earning him admiration from most, but enmity from Medoc, the resident wizard. In the background, a “hooded figure” stalks the time-travellers, determined to reclaim the abacus. Repeated attempts to reactivate the abacus during the month they spend with Arthur fail until, threatened by the hooded stranger who insists, “you have something that belongs to me,” AP presses the button and the travellers return to the present, gone for “precisely one second.”

    Back home in Boston, AP studies the abacus and excitedly tells Kate, “one month in the past takes exactly one second in the present!” Kate, reverting to her bored- teenager role, treats AP like a nuisance until a mini crisis strikes and she suddenly wants to travel again, immediately, and they head for Montana, 1876, the time of General Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn. Again, the time travellers encounter protectors, this time among the Oglala Sioux where an elder, Talking Cloud, takes them into his family and teaches them about White/Indian relations, living in harmony with the environment, and life skills. With the threat of more US federal government interference with the off-reservation Sioux, Talking Cloud sends the two away to safety. A Crow acting as a scout for the US army takes them to the encampment where they meet General Custer. Although Kate adamantly insists she wants to leave before the battle ensues, she relents and they witness the rout of Custer by the combined forces of the “Sioux and their allies.” The hooded figure, actually Robert Drew from 180 years into the future tracking what he calls the chronoverser, stalks them and, despite several setbacks, catches up with them, demanding the abacus. Just in time, AP pushes the button, and they’re back in Kate’s bedroom.

     Their parent’s scheduled trip to Egypt inspires the twosome to activate the abacus and transport to the Ramesses II era of Ancient Egypt, Luxor, 1250 BC. AP assumes the role of a wab, an apprentice priest; Kate is mistaken for a priestess and with AP’s help fulfills the role almost too successfully, attracting the attention of Ramesses, himself, who thinks she would be a wonderful addition to his collection of wives. AP finds a friend in Nekhri whose family welcomes him and takes him to work in their business, the House of Embalming and Purification; Kate joins a wealthy household, befriended by the daughter, Tamil, a genuine priestess. To enhance Kate’s status, AP concocts a pinhole camera and a magnetic compass. Drew, determined to acquire the abacus, continues to stalk them and almost succeeds, but again, conveniently Kate and AP conveniently escape and return home safely. A final glimpse of Drew, 47-years into the future “developing an apparatus to detect the abacus,” suggests a sequel to Kate and AP’s adventures.

     To reassure Kate that their time in all three eras will not adversely impact history, AP explains the time-travel paradox: “nothing we do here in the past will have any lasting effect. As soon as we’re gone, everything we did will disappear with us.” A retired Royal Ontario Museum palaeontologist and University of Toronto professor, McGowan has written extensively, but Abacus is his first novel and reflects his belief that exciting students about science with hands-on experience is essential to their understanding. AP, considered a geeky shrimp by his trendy sister, uses his knowledge of science to extricate them from several dilemmas during their forays into the past where his experiments are considered sorcery. The interplay between the siblings is believable as their concern for each other trumps any conflict. Well-paced prose, an appealing pair of main characters, an appropriately threatening villain, a variety of secondary characters in three past-time frames, fast-paced action, and plenty of historical detail combine in this entertaining novel for middle-grades. McGowan adds suggestions for “Further Reading for Young People” and “Further Reading for Parents and Teachers,” as well as “Notes” that “explain some of the facts in the story” and “give some background information about the real historical events.” The consummate educator, McGowan provides detailed instructions, “How to Repeat the Experiments in the Book,” for readers, cautioning “you MUST have an adult helper for some of the experiments.” although, of course, fictional AP conducts his scientific feats independently and successfully.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke writes from her home in Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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