Bridge of Time

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Clever tale of present-day kids lost in 1864 San Francisco.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Bridge of Time's trip to the San Francisco of 1864 offers up-close-and-personal experiences of history that will probably be as startling to today's kids as they are to Lee and Joan in the book -- such as the fact that Joan, being young, Chinese American, and female, would be in mortal danger if her face were seen by the white populace. Or that getting water for a bath was so difficult that it's easy to see why no one bothered. Kids already familiar with Mark Twain will get a big kick out of young Sam Clemens (Twain's real name), as well as Lee and Joan's slowness on the uptake about their new friend's identity, considering that they've studied his work in school.

Positive Messages

The kids learn to rely on each other during their time-travel experience and recognize that their strong friendship will survive life's ups and downs. They also learn to appreciate the blessings of their families and their own time, especially as they observe the worst of 19th-century racial discrimination. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lee and Joan are good friends, and though they ditch their school field trip, their decision is provoked by their parents' bad behavior. Sam Clemens, the future Mark Twain, has a passion for justice and righteousness but is also not above stealing and swindling to get by and quickly gets the kids involved. Chinese herbalists named Gim, in both 1864 and 2013, are intelligent and helpful friends, and the shotgun-toting, time-traveling Misses Greta and Penelope are stalwart defenders.

Violence

The Civil War is in progress, and there's an active military presence at Fort Point, which is one of the hazards that Sam and the kids must negotiate. Clemens/Twain witnesses the fatal beating of a Chinese man by some Irish butchers and writes an article about it, which causes the butchers to become his mortal enemies, adding further danger to the kids' life in 1864 San Francisco. Anti-Chinese discrimination puts Chinese-American Joan in danger by just being there, particularly since she's young and female. Misses Greta and Penelope fire their shotguns at the butchers, who eventually blow up an unoccupied boat; there's much brandishing of guns in 1864, but, as Lee notices, very little actual firing of them.

Sex
Language
Consumerism

Joan buys a book at Books Inc. (a real present-day San Francisco bookstore); later, the kids and Sam share Coke (which he hates). In the far future, the moon is obscured by two brilliantly lit advertising signs in the night sky, one for Coca-Cola and one for McDonald's.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Young Sam smokes a pipe; older Mark Twain smokes a cigar. Joan gives both of them a hard time.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Bridge of Time, Lewis Buzbee's follow-up to his award-winning Steinbeck's Ghost, takes Lee Jones and Joan Lee, two present-day San Francisco middle-schoolers, on an unexpected trip into the city's past and future -- with a young Mark Twain as a tour guide. Adding to the drama: Each kid's parents have just announced that they're getting divorced, and the two friends are about to get sent to different schools. While time travel, history, mysterious strangers, racial discrimination, personal growth, family drama, and Mark Twain's literary career are sometimes an uneasy mix, today's kids may feel right at home in the chaos. Twain witnesses and writes about the fatal beating of a Chinese man by Irish butchers, who later blow up an unoccupied boat, and two shotgun-toting women fire shots at the butchers, but no one is hurt.

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What's the story?

It's the last day of school for San Francisco middle-schoolers/best friends Lee Jones and Joan Lee, but it's a really bad day. First of all, both kids' parents have chosen this moment to announce that they're getting divorced. Also, Joan's parents are moving her to a different school, and the BFFs are worried they're never going to see each other again. Just when things couldn't get any worse, their class field trip to the amusement park gets canceled, and they get stuck going to Fort Point, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, for the gazillionth time instead. Disgusted, the two sneak off from the group to discuss their troubles, doze off in the fort's lighthouse, and wake up to the fort's cannon firing -- in 1864. Soon they're talking to a strange redheaded young man named Sam Clemens, who tells them quite a bit about how time is a river but isn't so sure how they're going to get back home.

Is it any good?

Lewis Buzbee is a very good, imaginative writer with both an ability to bring history alive and a real insight into the world and concerns of today's bright, engaged kids. Characters Lee and Joan ring true, even in improbable situations. Buzbee is quite fond of Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, and readers who find L'Engle too preachy may see a bit of the same going on here. For example, presenting Lee with a future version of himself telling him everybody's much happier after the divorce will strike many readers as smarmy. And not everyone will be satisfied with how the author resolves all the book's issues.

On the other hand, between the well-drawn characters, the history, the time travel, and the sheer local color of San Francisco over several centuries, Bridge of Time offers plenty to reward multiple reads.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about time travel -- would you travel into the past and future if you could? Where would you go, and what would you do?

  • What do you most take for granted in your everyday life today that you'd have the hardest time living without if you were suddenly transported to 1864?

  • Do you have more appreciation for Mark Twain's stories now that you've seen the author as a character in a story? Do you think he was really like the character in Bridge of Time?

  • Do you agree with Joan that you're supposed to learn something from every adventure, or is it OK to just have fun sometimes or do things for no reason?

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