Two accidental time travelers explore Canada in 1939 in THE TREE OF LIFE, the first installment in the Tower Room series by Dawn Davis.
As THE TREE OF LIFE opens, Charlotte Hansen and her friend, Henry Jacobs, are hanging out in the old mansion where Charlotte and Leo, her grandfather, live. Henry is there to practice the piano, and Charlotte is waiting for him to finish so that she can supervise his work on a massive school project researching the 1930s. When Leo leaves the house to pick up his friend Gwendolyn Fenton—whom Charlotte does not like—the two eleven-year-olds prepare tea and cookies for the grown-ups’ visit and then rush to the Tower Room. The room is located on the top floor of the mansion. Charlotte is not allowed in the room without permission; but she is headstrong and ignores the directive. After leaving the tray of tea and sweets on the tabletop, Charlotte pulls Henry underneath the table with her.
The children soon hear Gwendolyn telling Leo about a magical brooch from her childhood. Suddenly, a large hand grabs Charlotte, who clutches Henry tightly before the hand thrusts the pair into nothingness. After Charlotte regains consciousness, she and Henry meet the younger version of Gwendolyn, a spoiled force of nature determined to appropriate the brooch her late mother left her brother. The friends learn that they are still in Rose Park, the neighborhood they both call home, but the year is 1939.
As Charlotte and Henry realize that they have traveled backward to move forward, the purpose of their time travel is revealed: Charlotte is there to help Gwendolyn resolve the pain of her past. During the adventure, Henry advocates against the anti-Semitism and racism of that time, and Charlotte learns to look beyond her own desires to help a person in need.
The idea for THE TREE OF LIFE and the Tower Room series came to the author after she attended a centennial celebration at her daughters’ school. “What might happen,” Davis thought, “if two children lived their research instead of simply reading about it? This one step outside the restrictions of time became the foundation for the series.”
As in THE TREE OF LIFE, the next three books will highlight different time periods in Canadian history, with the one constant being the appearance of Charlotte and Henry. Although the children will appear in each book with different names and bodies, they will be easily recognizable as eternal soul mates, and the harbingers of love and connection for those who have stumbled and lost their way.
They needed to work on our outfits for school on Monday.
There was to be a parade in the playground, a decade fashion show parade. Since most of the parents refused to scour the bins at Good Will for appropriate clothing, Henry and Charlotte were the only ones so far who had volunteered. Technically Henry did not volunteer. Charlotte signed his name in invisible ink and was planning on informing him later this afternoon. She would tell Henry that he would get special marks for being in the parade (a lie) because Henry was motivated only by marks. Their grades were already as high as they could go, mostly for bringing in a lot of old junk from Charlotte’s great aunt Dilys’s decaying trunks; printed spun rayon dresses, white nubuck open-toed Cuban-heeled shoes, step-by-step instructions on how to pluck out all your eyebrow hair and draw on fake eyebrows that had a larger arch, one of the first ballpoint pens ever made (1938), a picture of a chesterfield suite in mohair that cost $1.95 at the Adams Trade-in Store Special, and a spring hat with a lilac ribbon purchased at Fairweathers for $2.00 and still in the bag. In reviewing her list, Charlotte found one item to be extremely interesting. In the 1930s, a hat cost more than a chesterfield.
It irked Charlotte that she needed to refer to her lists to remember how many items she had collected because Henry never needed this crutch. He could recite any list, any page of a book, any tiny print on a newspaper, even if he had only seen it once and for less than a second.
That’s because Henry had a condition called eidetic memory bog.
A bog is a swamp, a very damp place where unpleasant things grow and multiply. This was Charlotte’s way of describing the interior of Henry’s skull.
Eidetic memory: an article in a newspaper, a children’s story, musical notes from dingy old manuscripts, the script on a Chinese menu, junk mail forced through the mail slot, recipes, etc. etc. misc., all absorbed, imprinted, collated and filed away for future reference, word perfect. Although Henry denied it, Charlotte believed he had this disease because of his permanently crossed eyes. Therefore his brain was unable to process information the way the brain of a normal person (like Charlotte’s) did by sucking up facts through perfectly aligned eyeballs and expelling it all through the very same portals. Henry’s out-take portals were plugged by all the surgeries he had when he was a toddler, and Charlotte feared that someday Henry’s brain might explode from all the useless information he could not eliminate.
A handful of people knew he had this illness, and Henry utilized it sparingly.
“Because I appear to be blind, I overcompensate by having an unusual ability to retain data that may or may not be useful in the world at large,” Henry once told Charlotte. “Is that so unusual?”
Of course she immediately had to set him a test.
Henry was lounging around on Charlotte’s bed, breathing her air and staring at her ceiling and moving his lips in a really annoying way so she said: “Let me show you something.”
He ignored her for a while but finally cranked his head over to where Charlotte was stitching together a hole in the leg of one of her stuffed animals.
She dropped the dog and held the World Book up to his face.
“Look at this.” She pointed to the section on German wirehaired pointers. She let Henry look at the article for three seconds and then she whisked the book away and sat cross-legged on the end of her bed because Henry was taking up all the middle space.
“What about it?” he asked.
“What kind of dog is a German wirehaired pointer?” Charlotte asked.
“A hunting dog,” he replied immediately.
“How did it come to be?”
“It’s a cross-breed which means the dog was developed by breeding a German short haired pointer with a poodle pointer.”
“And how much does it weigh?”
“About twenty-five kilos.”
“Does it like having its ears scratched?”
“How many times a day do you have to take it out for a walk?”
“What do you do if the dog howls in the middle of the night?”
“How long does it take the average German short haired pointer to devour a bowl of food, and what happens if one freshly cooked pea is buried in the midst of its food?”
“What good does it do you to be able to memorize this anyway?”
“Facts are meaningless,” she said. “Experience is everything.”
“Shut up,” Henry said. “There is only one fact that is significant. I blend in. I get along just fine.”
In fact, Henry did not get along just fine, and if it weren’t for Charlotte, he never would have survived at Rose Park Public School.
For some reason the mere presence of Henry on the playground at school annoyed a few of the boys in the grade five class, the ones who weren’t very bright—Tyler MacKenzie in particular. Tyler invented a few colourful names which he felt best described Henry’s exterior; cross-eyed creep, frogman, slimebucket, and monster boy were a few of the favourites. These insults usually bounced off Henry, drifting into the air like soap bubbles, which then quietly burst, leaving Henry unharmed. He didn’t seem to hear the words directed at him. But once Henry made the mistake of getting in Tyler’s way. He was standing at the southern end of the playground reading a book he had projected onto the wall of the school, the same brick wall Tyler and his friends were using to see who could slam a baseball the hardest.
Henry didn’t know he was in the way because he was not present to the reality of the moment.
He returned abruptly when Tyler stood before him, blocking his view of the wall.
“Hey, slimebucket, we’re playing a game here. Move.”
“Or maybe we could use you as a target and just aim for your nose.” Tyler touched Henry’s nose lightly with his fingertips. “That would be easier to hit than the wall.”
Henry brushed aside the grubby fingertips and stared straight at Tyler.
“Smell,” he said, “is stored in the limbic area of the brain.” His voice was measured and precise. “That’s why whenever I smell dog shit, I think of you…”
“In fact, all our memories and emotions are stored in the limbic area,” Henry told Charlotte five minutes later as they were both hurried off to the nurse’s office. Charlotte got an elbow in her eye trying to defend Henry whose upper lip had been cut right open.
He continued to talk as blood pooled in his mouth.
“The emotional content we all have stockpiled is extremely personal,” he said matter-of-factly, shifting the ice pack from the staffroom freezer to spit in the yogurt jar from the daycare centre. “And everything we possess inside here,” he said, tapping his forehead with three fingers, “is warehoused instantly with no conscious intervention on our part at all.”
So much for blending in.