In the Nick of Time, J. Lee Graham (2008, 99 pages), is a straightforward time travel tale in which three 13-year-old kids–Andy, Roger, and Miranda–go to a plantation in Georgia in 1858 where slaves are used. The story is given added drama because Roger is African-American, and the other two are white, and so only Roger finds himself a slave. As in a YA time travel book I admired, Trapped Between the Lash and the Gun by Arvella Whitmore, the stakes are very high as the kids are stuck in slave times until they can figure out how to return to their present.
Andy’s aunt, with whom he was very close, dies at the beginning of the story. She was a mystical personality and believed she could communicate with the dead. She had been a world traveler and picked up spiritual souvenirs from all over the world. The time travel starts when Andy’s family is cleaning out her house and Andy finds some mysterious incense that had been hers. He lights it and is transported back to the scene of the Boston Massacre of 1770. This foray into the past is brief and is not really connected to the main time travel in the story. I think the only reason for this trip in the narrative is to show what is needed to return to the present. Andy is able to return home when he relights the incense stick.
Not knowing where it will take them, Andy invites Roger to go on an adventure via another incense stick. He figures they can just relight the incense to return home. But this time he drops the incense stick just as they are leaving his bedroom. They have lost their return ticket! Miranda wasn’t invited, but happens upon the scene and inhales some of the incense smoke, so is also whisked away. The three find themselves on the plantation.
Roger finds he is part of a family of slaves living in a shack, while Andy and Miranda live in the fancy house of the owners of the plantation. Roger must do the back-breaking work of picking crops and is treated horribly by the white overseer of the plantation. Meanwhile, Andy and Miranda come to believe if they can find the herb that smells like the incense and they burn it, they will be able to return home. They begin a desperate search to find the mystery herb.
I admire the author for taking on such an important topic as slavery. The storyline would be easy enough for younger middle grade readers to follow, but because Graham does not shy away from the ugliest aspects of slavery, including whippings and even a hanging, a teacher or parent would have to decide if their children were ready to emotionally deal with this subject matter even if they were able to read the book. Once the kids arrived at the plantation, I appreciated that the story kept a clear focus on how awful and unfair slavery was. I also liked how the story was not merely a time travel adventure, but also a tale of friendship, and how much can be forgiven in friendship.
In the Nick of Time is not to be confused with Nick of Time by Ted Bell which is also a time travel story, or with the numerous other books of the same title!