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Not-So-New-Books: The Doomsday Book

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Doomsday Book
By Connie Willis
 

[I try to keep on top of interesting new books, but there are so many good boos out there, it seems a shame not to revisit some of my favorites now and then, just in case they’ve fallen off your radar and are just what you want for your library list.]

I wanted to come, and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they were.

OK, so the premise of Connie Wilkes’ time travel books is absolutely brilliant: In the not-too-distant future, historians must get practical experience by traveling back in time to the period of their concentration. (“You didn’t become an historian by staying safely at home,” one character reminds the worried professor Dunworthy near the beginning of the book.) Most of Willis’ time travel history books take place in the 19th and 20th century, but The Doomsday Book sends history student Kivrin back to the 1300s.

This is a big deal, even for time-hopping Oxford academics. Some time periods are just inherently dangerous, and the Middle Ages—with the plague, disease, lack of general hygiene, bad food, and short life expectancy—are not safe places to travel, especially for a solo young woman. And there are issues with slippage—time travel is notoriously unreliable, and you can’t always be sure you’ll end up exactly when you want to be. But Kivrin is determined to be the first historian-traveler to the Middle Ages, and despite her professor’s concerns, she gets the go-ahead to check out a 1320 Christmas celebration in person.

But things don’t exactly go as planned. Kivrin discovers that she’s landed in 1348, with the Black Death just making its entrance in England. (She’s immunized, but none of the nice people who’ve taken her into their village are.) The big time discrepancy means that getting Kivrin back to her right time will be a challenge—but Dunsworthy is the only one who’s worried about Kivrin because fpresent-day Oxford has been hit by a plague of its own, and the town is quarantined. As Kivrin experiences life in the Middle Ages—realizing how little her years of obsessive research and study have taught her about actually living in medieval times—she faces the possibility that she may live out the rest of her life in 1300s England.

I love this book. Some people criticize the needless and rather boring drama Dunworthy goes through trying to first figure out what’s happened with Kivrin and then how to get her home, but I actually think that’s exactly how bureaucratic organizations tend to operate. (It’s true that Willis didn’t imagine cell phones, which might have sped up some communication, but in general I think all the lags and waiting and missed calls are totally believable.) But the best part of the book is the time travel bit, when we’re with Kivrin in Skendgate. Willis does a great job paining a medieval village as seen through Kivrin’s eyes, first as she grows to understand and know the people who have taken her in and then as she watches, heartbroken, as the plague kills villager after villager, leaving Kivrin alone and far, far from home. 

This is definitely a YA book—when a plague shows up, you know there’s going to be a lot of death, and some of the descriptions of the plague’s effects are pretty gruesome. But I think it would be a terrific accompaniment to a medieval history class or just an engaging read for teens who appreciate apocalyptic fiction (what’s more apocalyptic than a good plague?), science-fiction, or good historical fiction.