Title: Cape of Slaves
Series: Time Twisters #1
Author: Sam Roth (pseudonym of Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden)
Published: March 2012
Publisher: Puffin South Africa
Genre: science fantasy, historical children’s fiction, YA
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
In the year 2099, a glowing, green, time-travelling dust escapes into an air vent and travels “through time and space, searching for human skin with which it could connect”.
In present day Johannesburg, the glowing dust finds 12-year-old Sarah, and some of it seeps into her skin. At school the next day, Sarah is inexplicably drawn towards a book entitled Europe in the Middle Ages. When she examines one of the pictures she is pulled into the scene, travelling to the time in which it occurred. Sarah returns moments later, and decides that she needs to find others who have been touched by the dust.
She places a cryptic ad in the personal columns of a local teen newspaper, and that’s how she meets Toby, a street-smart boy from a dodgy neighbourhood, and Bonisile ‘Bones’ Tau (rhymes with ‘cow’), a super-nerdy genius. Toby shows them a newspaper clipping about a girl named Miriam who disappeared from the Cape of Slaves exhibition at a local art gallery. Toby is convinced that Miriam travelled through a portal in one of the paintings and could not get back. Bones and Sarah agree to join Toby on a rescue mission to save Miriam, but when they go through the painting to land in Cape Town, 1825, they do so without an inkling of what kind of society awaits them.
Before I go any further, I should put in a disclaimer. The protagonists are 12 and 13 years old, and according to Puffin’s press release for this Cape of Slaves, the target audience is 8-years old and up. I know nothing about the intellectual capabilities or reading preferences of this age group, so I’m reviewing this primarily for older teenagers and adults who read YA. Younger readers are no doubt less demanding and wouldn’t be bothered by the many shortcomings in this novel, but I thought the authors could have been more rigorous, regardless of the fact that they were writing for children. YA and children’s fiction shouldn’t be sub-standard fiction.
The bit of plot I described above already raises a lot of questions and issues for me. I think it’s unlikely that a personal ad in a local youth newspaper would catch the attention of the very few people who were touched by the dust. Who reads those newspapers anyway? Then Toby assumes that Miriam has time-travelled, based on nothing but a newspaper article claiming she “disappeared without a trace” (24). Sarah and Bones accept his assumption without question and agree to join him on a rescue mission, even though these three met each other less than an hour before. They all act as if time travelling is old hat for them, even though they’ve only had one experience with it so far and don’t really know how it works.
When they go to the museum to find the right painting and travel through it, none of them thinks to dress the part, so they all travel 187 years into the past looking like modern kids. What’s worse is that none of them give a single thought to the fact that they’re going to a time of slavery, and the issue of skin colour only comes up once they’ve gone through.
I could, reluctantly, suspend my disbelief to accept that Sarah is capable of this. She lives a life of privilege, where her daily problems involve her stepdad driving her to school in a huge, embarrassing Hummer, walking her to class, and searching her room for sweets and chocolates because he’s a health freak. Because she’s white, discrimination has probably never been an issue for her and 1825 will be far less dangerous for her than for Toby or Bones, so maybe – just maybe – she hasn’t considered the slavery issue.
Toby on the other hand, is coloured and comes from an impoverished background that has made him acutely aware of the racism and discrimination in present-day South Africa. In 1825, he knows full well that his skin colour puts him in danger, so why didn’t he mention it before? Bones, being a genius who attends one of the poshest schools in the country, has actually memorised a historical timeline from 1652 to 1902, so he definitely knows all about slavery. Nevertheless, he arrives at the gallery an hour early and goes through alone, all because he wants “to be the boy who came back from the past, told the world, and won prizes for it”. Of course, he ends up being the boy who is assumed to be a slave because of his skin colour.
Childish optimism aside, are 12-year olds really this dof? Or so ignorant of their history? Did schools stop teaching kids about slavery? Even if that’s the case, or if these three haven’t had those classes yet, then an art exhibition named “Cape of Slaves” and a room full of pictures depicting slavery should have been a giant, screaming clue. Certainly more noticeable than a cryptic ad in the personals column of a youth newspaper.
Perhaps the protagonists’ ignorance is meant to set the stage for an educational experience, since education is presumably one of the purposes of this novel, at least for those who don’t know about slavery or the fact that it was practised in South Africa. Since I already knew the basics, Cape of Slaves wasn’t informative or immersive. The depiction of slavery felt thin, like an impression gleaned from novels and movies on the subject. The authors (or publishers/editors) appear to have favoured ease of reading over historical accuracy in many instances. Sometimes this is understandable. For example, the violence in the novel is mild, to better suit the young audience, and we mostly see the cruelty of slavery in the way black people are treated like domestic animals. But too often it felt like the novel just glossed over difficulties in a way that felt unnecessarily childish and unrealistic.
Almost all the characters speak perfect English, so the protagonists have no difficulty communicating. There’s only a smattering of Dutch or Afrikaans, and I don’t recall any African languages being used. No one makes a big deal about the kids’ modern clothing, speech or mannerisms. Many people marvel at how well educated Bones is, as if he were a monkey who’d learned to speak, but none of the slave owners find this threatening or even suspicious, and no one asks how or why he was educated. At one point, a slave boy named Elijah runs away from his farm in an attempt to help Bones, and they both end up getting sold at a slave market in the nearby town. Surprisingly, Elijah’s owners don’t ever come looking for him – quite convenient in terms of plot, but I can’t imagine that runaway slaves were treated so casually.
The characters are just as thin and uninteresting as the historical setting. Sarah is a garden variety shy, insecure girl, who gets jealous easily and finds it difficult to think of Toby without some kind of romantic overtone. Bones is a hollow nerd cliché – he’s physically weak, troubled by allergies, dresses like Steve Urkel, and likes to read about “rocket science and global warming” (46). What vague tastes. Poor Elijah, the only slave with a major role, is little more than a plot device put in place to help the readers and characters find their way. Toby, at least, is a little more appealing, probably because he’s the boldest, most socially conscious, and most adaptable of the three time travellers. He’s the streetwise “cool dude” with a sensitive side, but sadly this comes off as a bit of a cliché too. There’s an odd lack of slang in the characters’ speech, and they don’t really sound like kids most of the time, even if they act as such. There’s no real variation in the way they speak either, and this can be confusing, because the narrative switches between first-person narrators every two or three chapters, and it’s only the context that enables you to identify who is speaking.
On the whole, Cape of Slaves has the quality of a made-for-TV kids’ movie, like the ones that M-Net used to play for the two-hour Disney family time on Sunday afternoons. I remember liking those movies, but even then I knew that their stories were kept smooth and simple – sometimes ridiculously so – in order to keep kids happy. Similarly, this could be a good read for pre-teens and younger teens – it’s short and fairly easy to read, has a bit of adventure, and some educational value. For the many adults who read YA though, I would not recommend this.