Reviewed by Carol Baldwin
Time travel. The Civil War. Multi-cultural. Horses. Romance. There aren’t many books that fit such a wide variety of categories—but Turning on a Dime by Maggie Dana does just that.
Samantha DeVries’ father is Lucas DeVries, a third-generation American of Dutch descent and master horseman; her mother, Gretchen, is an African-American and a history buff who has traced her family’s lineage back to 1875.
Caroline Chandler is the daughter of a plantation owner in Mississippi who prefers her brother’s riding breeches to petticoats and pantalettes. But in spite of her tomboyish interests, she has lived within the boundaries of privilege and mid-nineteenth century decorum. Soon after the story begins, Caroline is sent to a neighboring plantation for a dreaded social visit. While there, she learns that her family has fled their farm after Union soldiers commandeered it.
Samantha (Sam) and Caroline’s worlds intersect when Sam visits her father’s friend’s antebellum home to look at horses. Sam picks up what appears to be a dime from her bedroom floor and falls asleep listening to Lady Gaga on her iPhone. When she wakes up, Caroline is staring at her and wondering what a slave is doing sleeping in her bed.
Sam gradually convinces Caroline of who she is, although she admits that she doesn’t know how she got there. Caroline is barely prepared for her guest from the future: she has read about a man who travels to the future and sees horseless carriages and flying machines. But she is even less prepared to see a black girl who speaks, acts, and thinks as independently as Sam does. Fortunately, their mutual love for horses helps ease them over their initial discomforts. Or as Sam says, “No matter who you’re talking to, if they love horses you can get beyond whatever barriers you think are out there…”
Told from both girls’ points of view, the reader watches as Sam and Caroline experience slavery’s painful effects. I particularly enjoyed their “ah ha” moments. When Sam first realizes she must act like a slave in order not to be detected she thinks,
“I am in a nineteenth-century horse barn facing a man with a whip—a mean looking thing with a knotted leather thong—and I can tell he’s dying to use it on me.
“Yes, mister,” I mumble.
He raises the whip. “Go.”
So I shuffle off trying to look as dejected as possible, but inside I am raging with fury. How did my people live like this?
Later, after Sam is mistaken for a runaway slave and is captured, Caroline thinks,
My fists curl into balls. Angry tears stream down my face. All I can think of is Sam huddled on the dirt floor of a slave cabin, being kicked and whipped. Without Papa to curtail him, Zeke Tuner will be brutal. He’ll unleash all his vicious fury on my dearest friend.
How did I not see this before?
Shame joins my angry tears. I’m angry with myself, and I’m ashamed of the world I’ve inhabited all my life without seeing it for what it really is.”
The author does a great job of showing the girls overcoming their initial distrust and forming their surprising friendship. In the process, each girl learns about the other girl’s seemingly foreign world. Their wit and strengths are tested after Sam is captured; but working together they find a way of escape—and a way for both of them to return to their families.
Maggie Dana’s love for all things equestrian is neatly woven into the narrative and the plot. Although separated by 150 years, from the moment that Sam asks Caroline, “What is your horse’s name?” they have a common bond. From the saddles, tack, to horse quirks and mannerisms, this novel is a great example of an author using what she knows to build a believable, fictional world.
I would recommend this book to girls from 6th-10th grade, as well as to adults who want to use their own life experiences as a springboard into fiction. And while you’re at it, it’s a terrific example of interlacing multiple genres into one novel. Read it. Enjoy it. Learn from it.
CAROL BALDWIN‘s most recent book is Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8 (Maupin House, 2008). She has coordinated the Charlotte Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators critique group for over twenty years, blogs at www.carolbaldwinblog.blogspot.com and is writing her first young adult novel. She is a writing instructor in the Continuing Education Department of Central Piedmont Community College. The three Gs in her life are gardening, grandchildren, and golf.