There are certain kinds of kids’ books I love. I don’t necessarily seek them out, but I love them nearly every time I read them. Time travel books, boarding school books, ballet books, books about (sometimes orphan) siblings, books about kids who read books. Charlotte Sometimes, by Penelope Farmer, one is three out of five, and I was necessarily bound to adore it.
In 1958, Charlotte Makepeace goes to her first year at boarding school. Everything is strange, of course: the other girls, the customs, the bells, the sounds of airplanes flying overhead from the nearby runway. But at least she is there first, and gets to choose the best bed: an old-fashioned sort of bed on wheels, by the window.
The next morning, however, Charlotte wakes up in the same bed, but another time: 1918, when the country is at war. At first, she hardly knows anything is different, except that the other girls keep calling her Clare instead of Charlotte, because one boarding-school atmosphere is quite like another. That night, she goes to sleep in her bed on wheels, and wakes up in 1958 again, as Charlotte. Was it all a dream? She’s missed an entire day in her time. Who was here in her place? Was it Clare, the 1918 girl?
The alternating nights and days go on, and life becomes quite difficult to manage. Charlotte has to keep up with lessons in both times. In one era, she’s very good at piano, and in the other, she’s hardly begun lessons. In one era, she cements a best-friendship, then appears to ignore the girl the next day. Not to mention that in 1918, she has a sister, Emily, who has cottoned on to the whole problem. Inevitably, Charlotte gets stuck in 1918 and must figure out how to get home.
But the real problem, as the title of the book announces, is her identity. Who is Charlotte Makepeace? Is she only Charlotte when she is in 1958, or is she always Charlotte? Is she so much like Clare that she can be mistaken for her, even by her sister? If she stays in 1918, will she become Clare? What do time and culture and environment mean for identity, and what is nature? Can Charlotte change the people around her if she isn’t Clare?
This was a terrific book. Penelope Farmer gives us Charlotte’s confusion, the disequilibrium in living between two worlds, and asks us how we would determine our own lives in such a world. Children go along to get along — how can they do otherwise? — in a system of punishments and demerits and strict rules. How can they determine their own desires and loves and relationships? In 1918, in a world at war, courage and freedom have different meanings for a girl trying to find her way back home.
I understand that Charlotte Sometimes is the third in a trilogy, the first two of which have to do with children learning to fly (another category of kids’ books I love.) It seems that these might be books to pursue, since I liked this one so well.