It happened completely by accident. I braved the miserable Brooklyn downpour yesterday afternoon to return some books to the library. While I was there, I scanned the middle grade shelves for the telltale red spines (true signs of excellence) of New York Review of Books titles—some new release I hadn’t read yet. And there was. And this is it. And it is also IT.
My long-suffering family members, and those of you have been reading my Picks of the Week for a while, are aware that for going on 30 years I’ve been searching for a book I read and loved as a girl. It’s about another girl, a time traveler, who, on great, sweet wafts of lavender and thyme and hyssop from her family’s herb garden, spins into a past fraught with danger and mystery. I didn’t realize what I had in my hands when I pulled this book off the library shelf. But as soon as I got it home and began to read, I knew it was the book I’d despaired of ever finding.
Finding this book has given me cause, and not for the first time in my life, to consider how plain weird memory is. In my mind, the story features a solitary girl visiting a solitary relative at said relative’s house in the country. The girl finds a sundial in the herb garden and is swept back in time when she places various sprigs on its dial at certain times of day. Despite the obvious allure of the bygone era in which she finds herself over and over, something dark and frightening is happening in the old house, and at some point, the girl is in danger of never being able to return to her own time.
A TRAVELLER IN TIME is only some of this, and also a lot more of other things. The girl in question, Penelope, with her siblings visits an elderly aunt and uncle at their estate in the country. She travels back in time almost unwillingly at first—she has what certain of her relatives call second sight. But not only can she see ghosts, she can visit them in the time in which they live—in this case, 16th century England in the months leading up to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. She does not find a sundial, although one is mentioned as residing in the herb garden; and she does not need to pick herbs for time-traveling spells, although she does pick plenty of them to bring to the cook in the kitchen of the old house (where she is mistaken for one of her ancestors), and herbs are used everywhere about the estate: strewn on bedroom, kitchen, and chapel floors; stuffed into pendants worn around necks to minimize the smell of 16th-century non-bathing people; and left for fairy folk in back rooms.
How could it be that I remembered certain things so vividly that do not actually appear in this book? And yet, this book is undeniably the one I remember? Or rather, it is undeniably a book I once read and loved. I don’t really have a full answer. But the question puts me in mind of the time, years ago, that I took a boyfriend to Paris. I was excited to show him all the places that had been so special and important to me in the eight months I’d lived in the city as a college student. Not that much time had passed, maybe six years. And yet, when I tried to retrace familiar and beloved routes that I had walked pretty much every day, I got turned around and lost. Twenty-one years after that visit I’m still annoyed by the sneer in his voice as he asked me, “Are you sure you lived here?” And still puzzled that my memories were so concrete, and so wrong. The only explanation I can think of is that I condensed memories, leaving out certain strips of certain blocks that were less interesting than others. Then I fused my most favorite sights from one route with favorite sights from another, until what was left was a distilled and idealized “memory” of a place and a time that was true in its sentiment but also untrue in all its facts.
I’m beginning to suspect that I did something similar with A TRAVELLER IN TIME. I read this book and remembered my favorite parts. Then I fused them with memories of another, or other, favorite books—I plowed my way through every magic and time-travel book I could lay hands on at the library when I was nine, so there are probably hundreds to choose from. As for what that other book or books may have been, I’m still not entirely certain. I’m trying to track down a copy of June Louise Curry’s PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY, AND TIME, the description of which seems promising. But in the meantime, please journey back in time with me to my own childhood, and pick up a newly released copy of A TRAVELLER IN TIME. Then write in and let me know your thoughts, on this book, or one that’s been elusive to you over the years.