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Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

One sign of a good book is that you come to the last page and want to start all over again. Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear – which should really be read straight through as one – made me wish for leisurely hours in a hammock, where I could go back and savor every plot twist, every character and every word.

In 2060 Oxford, historians have figured out how to travel back in time, allowing them to conduct first-hand research on everything from St. Paul to the French Revolution. Blackout begins with three of these historians dropped into England during the Blitz: Michael is planning to take part in the Dunkirk evacuation, Merope is in a country house taking care of evacuee children, and Polly has a job in a London department store. Each has come equipped with background information (such as when and where bombs exploded) and enough money, clothes and background knowledge to blend in with the “contemps.” But their scheduled returns go awry, and all three find themselves stuck in the past.

Have you ever had a nightmare where you’re trying desperately to get somewhere, but your path is obscured by smoke, fog, steep hills, and endless barriers? That’s what it’s like for our trio as the days tick by. They try desperately to meet up with their retrieval teams, and, failing that, do their best to leave clues in personal ads in hopes that future historians will figure out where they are. Worse, Polly has a deadline the others don’t know about: she’s been to World War II before, and the earlier trip may jeopardize her very existence if she stays too long. Most alarming of all, she is gradually coming to believe that, contrary to every known theory of time travel, the historians have now changed the past so much that Hitler may end up winning the war. 

The plight of the three historians is compelling, but Willis also seeds her story with memorable secondary characters: a Shakespearean actor with a growing fondness for Polly; the horrible Hodbins, two evacuee children who leave chaos in their wake but never miss a trick; and a cameo appearance by Agatha Christie, whose books give Polly her first hint of what’s really going on. England during wartime is a character all its own. 
The books are far from perfect – her frenzied characters can grow tiresome as they speculate endlessly about what might be happening and try repeatedly to complete some simple action only to be foiled over and over by contemps who are always in the wrong place at the wrong time. (For a mean but hilarious sendup of the books, check out this parody.)
And yes, the books are way too long and could have been cut and combined to good effect. And yet, and yet… when I finally caught up with the plot (DON’T wait six months between reading the first and second books), I couldn’t put it down, and I finished it with tears in my eyes.
Listen to a March 2010 podcast by Connie Willis on Authors on Tour Live here.