Thursday, November 21, 2013

It's About Time I Reviewed a Book

Whenever I shop garage or estate sales, I always make it a point to stop and go through the books.  Occasionally, you'll find a rare or old one, but usually just a good read and that's generally all I'm looking for.

One genre I like to collect is children's books, mostly the Scholastic books and their ilk you bought via monthly flyers.  Memories of pouring over those mini catalogs and the excitement when the teacher would open the box of newly arrived orders are some of my favorite of elementary school.

I've had the idea of doing a review of some of the books I've found and read for some time and having just completed one found book recently, I thought now was the perfect opportunity.

Now, given that lead up, I'll bet your expecting a Scholastic book?  Nope, I'm throwing you a curve; maybe even a bean ball.  But the series of coincidences in finding the book along with its content make for an interesting tale.

Webster Groves is a suburb of St. Louis.  My grandparents lived there and I spent many weekends and holidays with them.  In their final years, they enjoyed going to the local library and I would go with them weekly.  Occasionally, I like to drop back in for a visit and a recent remodel gave me an incentive to see what had changed.

Walking in the front door, I scanned the books for sale, as I always do.  One title caught my eye and at first I mistook it for the similarly titled book by one of my favorite authors, Jack Finney.  But the book, "It's About Time", was instead written by Bernal C. Payne, Jr.  Judging by the poorly drawn cover and the corny title, I knew it had to be a time travel story.




I'm a sucker for time travel stories, even those with poorly drawn covers and corny titles so I picked it up for a quarter.

Turning to the back cover insert for the author's biography, I was struck by the first coincidence:
"Bernal C. Payne, Jr., a teacher for more than ten years, is a great fan of fantasy such as this, his first novel.  Mr. Payne lives in Webster Groves, Missouri with his wife, Marge."
Reading the story synopsis of the front inside cover, I was struck by the next coincidence.

"Where do you think you would be today if your parents had never met? Right.  Nowhere.  But what if you were there at the time they were destined to meet - and prevented the meeting?  That's exactly what happens to sixteen-year-old Chris Davenport and his fifteen-year-old sister, Gail.

"On December 24, 1983, Chris and Gail project themselves back twenty-eight years to that fateful day in their parents' lives.  Thrilled, the teenagers show up to witness the meeting.  But at the very moment that Mom and Dad are to come together, Gail gets in the way.  And as the moment passes, Chris and Gail are thrust into a state of limbo. If they can't make their parents meet and fall in love, they won't eve die like human beings -- they'll simply disappear.
"Chris and Gail embark on a crucial matchmaking scheme.  Playing Cupid in a foreign time, however, is not easy.  For help, they turn to the parish priest.  But how can they convince Father Dooley that they are trapped in a time warp -- and that the only way out is to get their parents together?
"In the course of their struggle, Chris and Gail experience firsthand the worl of 1955.  They meet -- and love -- the grandparents they have never known.  And, most important, they come to know and understand their parents as young people--people not so very different from themselves."

Okay, what is everyone thinking right now?  Sound familiar?  Of course, "Back to the Future".

So I looked at the copyright: 1984.  A year before the release of the movie.  Now, is it possible the author had advanced intimate knowledge of the movie script?  Possible, but highly unlikely.  And likewise, could the movie have been based or inspired by the book?  Definitely unlikely as Bob Gale completed the first draft of the movie in 1981, although I did read he conceived the idea while visiting his parents in St. Louis.  I wonder if they lived in Webster Groves...

So I read the book.  It's definitely aimed at young adults and has some clunky dialog and narrative at points, but overall not a terrible read -- anyway, I didn't quit reading it.  In addition to the main premise and the year they travel back to (1955), there were some other marked coincidences in the story.

It begins in the fictional town of Summerville, Missouri at Christmas-time of 1984.  The town, filled with turn-of-the-20th-century houses sounds a lot like Webster Groves.  While searching for Christmas decorations in their attic, the main characters, teenagers Chris and Gail, come across a black and white photo of their parents in 1955.  Gail relates a story she read about a woman who could will herself into the past by simply staring at a picture of the same era.  Of course, Chris and Gail have to try it, and wouldn't you know it?  It works.  So, sorry, no customized DeLorean,  Doc Brown or even 1.21 gigawatts.  Although not the first time travel story to rely on this method ("Bid Time Return"/"Somewhere in Time" comes to mind), the premise is a little weak and I've always found this mode of time travel to be a cop-out.

Upon arriving in 1955, they find themselves in their own home, but 28 years earlier and not owned by their parents.  Conveniently for them, the owners are on vacation.  Reading the dateline of a newspaper in the house, they know they have travelled into the past to exactly one day before their parents are destined to meet.  With the excitement of their adventure before them, they leave the house to explore their newfound world; cue The Chordettes singing "Mr. Sandman".

And where do you think is the first place they stop?  A soda fountain.  Sitting down at the counter, the soda jerk asks, "What'll it be, kids?"  I prayed they would ask for a Pepsi Free.  But they don't.  They actually order  hamburgers, French fries and Cokes.  Biff never does show up and they finally head to a record store where they look over the small selection of Rock 'n Roll records.  Leaving there, they head to the local high school and discover their father acting very much the teenager, showing off in his roadster hot rod and their mother doing her best to ignore his antics.  They quickly deduce their parents are polar opposites and not even vaguely interested in each other.

Comfortable in the knowledge that will all change the next day when their parents accidentally bump into each other at a department store, Chris and Gail leave the school and find themselves on the street of their future father's home.  Curiosity gets the better of them and they decide to pop in on their grandparents under the premise they're lost.  Despite the set up that their grandparents both pass before they are born, nothing of note happens in their meeting.  Their visit finshed, they finally head back to their home (still vacant) and go to sleep.

The next day, eager to witness their parents' meeting, they head to "Bradburn's" Department store to stake out the front doors and wait for the parents to enter.  Finally spotting their father, they begin to trail him.  When they then spot their mother approaching, Gail's excitement overrules her caution and she crowds nearer for a better view.  Of course, you knew this was coming.  Venturing too close, she is knocked into her own father, preventing him from likewise bumping into her mother.  Unlike BTTF, he doesn't fall in love with his own daughter, but instead just goes back to shopping, unaware he has missed the chance meeting of his future wife.

Horrified of the consequences, Gail and Chris head back home.  But they find sitting around impossible and decide to head back out into the evening.  They come upon a group of skaters at a pond and observe their parents there, although both are escorted by a date.  Chris decides he might be able to recreate the meeting by causing his father to bump into his mother, however, this ends with his mother yelling at his father for being a "clod".

Unsure of where to turn, Chris and Gail seek out the priest of their local church, Father Dooley (of course he's Irish).  While praying in the pews, Gail discovers her hand is becoming transparent (chalk up another coincidence), the shock of which causes her to faint.  Awakening again, she finds her brother and Father Dooley standing over her.  She quickly pours out their predicament to Father Dooley explaining what's happened.  Of course, he's skeptical and asks, "Who's the president?"  When they answer "Ronald Reagan," he blurts out in his best Doc Brown:  "Whaaat!  You don't mean the actor!  And who comes after him?  Henry Fonda?  John Wayne? Marilyn Monroe?"

Eventually, after showing him Chris' digital wristwatch, they convince Father Dooley to meet with them the next day, Christmas Eve.  Returning home, Gail discovers her mother's diary which she brought from the present is now blank after the previous day's entry -- all details of meeting her future husband now vanished.  Pulling out the picture of their parents, they find it too is now blank.

The next day, they meet once again with Father Dooley, who now accepting their story as fact, conceives an idea to invite their parents to help with an annual Christmas dinner the church hosts for the needy.    Their parents both readily accept the invitation and though they encounter a few more bumps, through the course of working together at the dinner they realize their initial impressions of each other have been completely wrong.  Reunited and on the right path once again, Chris and Gail are assured a future.   Accordingly, their photo redevelops, with a slightly altered scene; one in which Father Dooley stands next to their parents with a wink in his eye.  Likewise, their mother's diary fills in the blank pages once again, largely unchanged aside from the few days around Christmas.

Returning to their home and climbing back to the attic, they stare at a picture of their parents from 1984 and once again return back to the future.  Unlike the movie, nothing has changed with their parents and there are not lasting effects of their time tinkering.

After the huge success of Back to the Future (man, I'll bet that ticked Bernal off), the book was re-released under the no-less clichéd title "Trapped in Time".

There's not much about Bernal C. Payne or his book on the internet aside from a few entries on Goodreads.com and this review on another blog.  Reading through comments of that blog, I found this comment left by an anonymous reader:
"Mr. Payne was my fifth grade teacher and was 100 percent sure that Spielberg had ripped him off. He was extremely bitter. At the time, he was looking into a lawsuit - I'm guessing it never went anywhere. It was a lot to be telling his fifth grade class - not the most appropriate thing."


Bernal C. Payne wrote two other books, "Experiment in Terror" and "The Late, Great Dick Hart".


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