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Book Review: The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove

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The master of alternate history, Harry Turtledove has created the Crosstime Traffic series as a vehicle for visiting just about any "what if" scenario you imagine. In the proverbial not-too-distant future, the world has nearly exhausted its resources, when the development of Crosstime Traffic permits people to move among an unlimited number of parallel universes in which history took a different turn. The crosstime travelers blend in, set up businesses, and gather resources which are brought back to earth as we know it.

In The Disunited States of America, teenager Justin Monroe and his mother are sent to Virginia in an alternate world in which the United States never became united. The Constitution was never ratified, and the Articles of Confederation failed to hold the states together. What we know as America became much like Eastern and Central Europe, where small independent states live in a state of frequent warfare. Virginia faces outside threats from neighboring states, as well as the oppressed black minority. Justin meets Beckie Royer, a teen from the California of that world. When war breaks out with the neighboring state of Ohio, complete with germ warfare, and the blacks rise in revolt, Justin and Beckie are trapped in a place neither of them want to be.

The Crosstime Traffic books are primarily geared toward young adults. Consequently the plot is more linear and the characters thinner than Turtledove's adult-oriented novels. The narrative voice becomes a distraction at times when a character says a racial slur, for example. Justin hears it as a different word, then the reader is told, "That was not actually the word he said, but Justin wouldn't even think about the real word." Some readers might feel that the lack of gritty language might detract from the realism of a book that centers around war and racism, but I didn't notice until I reflected on it afterward.

Having read numerous Turtledove books, I love the way in which he goes into great detail in describing the way in which his alternate scenarios have played out, including maps and the use of historical characters. The great weakness of The Disunited States of America is the almost complete lack of attention to such details. We get some information about Virginia, a little less about California, and a very few allusions to other states. I would have liked to at least have seen a map of this alternate North America, even if he could not take the time to go into greater detail.

One of the small treasures of this book is Beckie's grandmother, a crotchety old woman who will not only annoy you, but is guaranteed to remind you of your least favorite in-law. The story is a fast-paced, entertaining yarn that is perfect for a high-schooler with an interest in history, or a Turtledove fan looking for an enjoyable weekend read.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!