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by John Wilson

When it works, the time-travel novel breathes life into history and successfully weaves two narrative strands, one present and one past, into a balanced whole. Sometimes, though, the otherworld of the past is more interesting than the present, and the contemporary conflicts that the time-travel experience seeks to address end up being mere excuses for an adventure. Such is the case with Wilson’s Across Frozen Seas.

Except for the increasing tension between his parents, Dave Young’s life is pretty normal until he starts having vivid dreams. His dream self (also named David Young) is an orphan who, along with his pal George, has been hired as a cabin boy on the doomed Franklin expedition. As the dreams increase in intensity, Dave becomes obsessed with discovering his links with this 19th-century adventure. Yet even his grandfather Jim, whose ancestor was a member of the search team for the lost Franklin crew, has few answers. As the fights between his parents increase, Dave retreats into his dreams until he feels more at home in the 19th-century world than in his own. When Dave’s modern self becomes lost in a prairie blizzard and is saved by George, his two selves merge in an intriguing and moving climax.

Teens interested in the mysterious fate of the Franklin crew will find much satisfaction in this novel. In Dave’s dreams the 19th-century past is drawn in meticulous detail, and the dangers that David Young faces from disease, cold, and violence are vividly portrayed. The characters that populate the Franklin expedition are well drawn and speak like 19th-century people. George is particularly well realized.

The same cannot be said for the modern-day characters. Dave’s unhappy parents are never more than cardboard cut-outs, and even his sympathetic grandfather Jim, who has the potential to be a real “character,” is absent for much of the novel. Too many long passages of exposition about the Franklin expedition slow down the narrative. It is only with the fusion of his past and present selves near the end that Dave’s modern life becomes truly gripping. Nevertheless, Across Frozen Seas provides a useful introduction to the Franklin expedition.