Reviewed by Jennifer Smith | February 15, 2022
Guernica Edition/Microland Publishers, Fall 2021
Paperback, 314 pages, $21.95
Like many teenagers, Simon just wants to survive the school day. His daily complication: the bullies who follow him home. Every day he outwits and outruns them. That changes when they slow Simon down with a tripwire. Realizing he won’t safely make it to his house, he hides in the ancient dumbwaiter in his family’s workshop. He quickly realizes its door is stuck. Desperate to get out, he yells when he hears the bullies. However, they don’t pull him out. They lower Simon into the workshop’s basement using the dumbwaiter’s pulley system. Pushing several times on the stuck door, he finally frees himself and sees an old leather traveling chest in front of him. He opens it. Underneath the 2007 newspapers inside, Simon finds a beautiful pendant. It is “round and heavy, about the size of a large sand dollar. Smooth on one side, with some type of intricate pattern on the other, it looked like it was made of silver. It was beautiful…. The pattern appeared to be an apple tree in full blossom, its branches twisting in every direction” (24). He puts it on, resolved to discover more about it. Simon’s search for answers about the pendant results in his time travel.
A boy finding a magical pendant that enables time travel is an established trope in young adult fiction. Mendel makes the trope fresh by weaving environmental activism into her fantasy novel. After Simon discovers the pendant, he shows it to his parents. His mother immediately recognizes it and explains it is hers. She lost it before Simon was born but can’t explain its appearance in the trunk. Through Simon’s mother’s story, Mendel establishes plausible rules for Simon’s time travel. Time travel, in Mendel’s hands, is limited to the wearer’s own lifetime timeline and used for environmental activism.
Overall, Mendel’s narrative pace flows well throughout the novel. The pace does slow when Simon’s mother gives him her journal to read and their narratives combine. This backstory, however, is necessary to understand the talisman’s power. His mother comes from an island nation with a very small environmental footprint. On the island, people focus not on money and excessive lifestyles, but on “the survival of the human race” (160). They recycle, up-cycle, and reuse every item. It is an ecological utopia. Mendel’s island residents receive their pendants at thirteen and use them to try to prevent future environmental disasters.
Mendel uses Simon and his mother’s island visits as a contrast to their Canadian home. Simon’s father is an executive at the oil company, BigOilGamby. Because of his mother’s beliefs, his family strives to lessen their carbon footprint, but Simon’s Canadian community does little to offset their emissions. Mendel also uses these island visits to further Simon’s narrative. Despite Simon’s desire for his own pendant, the Elders, who lead the island nation, decide not to give him one. Their reason: he was not born there. If he is to time travel, he must secretly use his mother’s pendant. His mother allows him to do so and at her urging, Simon travels to his future. He discovers that in 2021 the world must make environmental changes to prevent a bleak future.
Mendel explores a contemporary environmental debate through Simon’s desire to stop the construction of an oil pipeline supported by the government and built by his father’s employer. Simon’s activist journey is diverse in Mendel’s hands. First, he takes small actions. He talks to his neighbors about the pipeline. This leads to an interview with his local radio station. Simon convinces some pipeline supporters. Others he does not. No matter Simon’s audience, Mendel presents compassionate conversations about the fossil fuel industry that dismantle the argument that lessoning fossil fuel productions will harm national and local economies and the families dependent on these companies. Simon takes bigger steps later when he joins forces with indigenous tribes to organize and plan national pipeline protests. His work with the tribes garners Simon national attention that leads to his most influential action: meetings with the Canadian Premier and Prime Minister. Simon’s small successes give him the confidence to successfully convince both men to cancel the pipeline’s construction. Because Mendel varies Simon’s actions, readers see how any activism they participate in, whether small or large, can change governments’ environmental policies.
Simon’s activism eventually earns him his own talisman. Yet Mendel’s ending does not leave readers feeling like they need their own time-traveling pendant to make significant environmental changes. As Simon’s mother reminds him, it only takes “one person at a time” (166). Rather than reading as heavy-handed didacticism, Simon’s story is an engaging environmental fantasy novel reassuring readers that millions of people making small, everyday changes results in positive environmental change.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Charlotte R. Mendel’s previous novels won such awards as the H.R. Percy Novel Prize and the Beacon Award for Social Justice. Her second novel was shortlisted for the 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and was a Finalist in the 2016 International Book Awards in the General Fiction category.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jennifer Smith is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her interdisciplinary dissertation focuses on twenty-first century young adult novels, TV shows, and films. In it she examines adaptations of the patriarchal white, heteronormative romance trope and how its contemporary mutations reveal the tensions between this trope and contemporary definitions of romance, sexuality, female authorship, and agency.