Book Review: Oliver’s Surprise

To cynical adult readers, it might seem like every bump on the head in a middle grade or young adult novel results in time travel and world-leaping. Yet anyone who truly understands the genre can tell you this is as valid a literary device as sniffing madeleines in a Parisian cafe. (And certainly more believable than faxing oneself back in time!)

Carol Cronin’s YA novel, Oliver’s Surprise, begins with the traditional bump on the noggin. And yes, Oliver gets whirled back in time—in this case to the Great Hurricane of 1938.  But Oliver’s Surprise is anything but a typical time-travel story.

For one thing, Oliver doesn’t run into a lot of historical figures. He runs into his own grandparents.  He even ends up being a guest in their house, and though they don’t have any idea who he is, he quickly figures out who they are.  This makes life a little tricky for him.

Also, unlike many time-travel novels, Oliver doesn’t end up in the right place at the right time. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. A horrible hurricane is coming, and not only is it going to devastate the little Rhode Island town of Dutch Harbor, it’s going to kill a lot of people: the men he’s working with at the docks; maybe even Finn, the boy who’s befriended him. Should he tell them? Would they believe him if he did?

Last but not least, the main character in most time-travel stories ends up “saving” history in some way: teaching King Arthur, inspiring Shakespeare, making sure the hero’s parents meet and get married. But Oliver’s Surprise is more about the past coming alive, how death and loss experienced in the moment are so much more acute than what the history books describe. Yes, Oliver does end up having an effect on history, but it’s a lot subtler and more personal than what readers are used to.

The writing in Oliver’s Surprise is tight and evocative, and Carol Cronin—former member of the U.S. Sailing Team and winner of two races at the Athens Olympics—is able to completely immerse us in the world of skiffs, schooners, goosenecks and derricks. And Laurie Cronin’s beautiful illustrations give the book a warm, nostalgic feel.

My only complaint about Oliver’s Surprise? It felt much too short. I wanted more of Oliver, more of his world, more about the hurricane. But since Ms. Cronin has already written a sequel, I guess I won’t have to wait very long.

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