Rabin, Staton. 2005. Black Powder. New York: Simon & Schuster.
I read a glowing review of this book, and my daughters had both liked Rabin’s earlier book, Betsy and the Emperor. I started Black Powder with high hopes.
The year is 2010. Fourteen-year-old Langston Davis’s best friend Neely is dead – shot in a gang-related argument. When Langston’s science teacher, Mrs. Centauri, reveals to Langston that she has created a time machine, Langston decides to alter history and stop the invention of the gunpowder that claimed his young friend’s life.
At first blush, this seems to be a very workable premise, but the devil is in the details. Rabin goes off on too many tangents, and the entire work becomes muddled. The concept of a sci-fi, historical fiction novel is a good one; however it pairs awkwardly when conjoined with realistic fiction and humor – particularly when the subject is gun violence. The trite, the hackneyed, and the stereotypical all make appearances in Black Powder.
When Langston revisits Lincoln’s assassination, he inexplicably has no idea what is about to occur, even though he is in Ford’s Theater looking at the presidential box during the premier of Our American Cousin. He looks through his telescope, and thinks, “Holy moly! It was like looking at the face on a five-dollar bill come to life. Abraham Lincoln!”
In traveling to and from the time machine, Langston frequently catches a ride with Mrs. Centauri’s milkman, who drives psychedelic green and orange milk truck and makes clichéd comments such as, “Out of sight! That really blows my mind, man,”
There is also the medieval Jewish milkman, “So? You couldn’t maybe have chosen the daytime for this little visit? … You got a sudden yen for milk? Come in – we’ll nosh, we’ll schmooze.”
These attempts at humor mesh clumsily with the more serious story of Dr. Bacon’s experiments, his persecution by the Church, and life in medieval England; or the grim details of violence-plagued gang life in South Central Los Angeles.
The historical aspect of the story has problems as well. Rabin plays fast and loose with history, although this is certainly a writer’s prerogative. Much of the history that is included is unsubstantiated. In Black Powder, Marco Polo sends a postcard relaying his intent to introduce pasta to Italy upon his return from the East. Langston later runs into a scene from the Braveheart movie. The Scots win the encounter because Langston convinces the Brits to chase after the Holy Grail, which Langston notes, is the cup that Jesus used on the eve of his death. To her credit, Rabin does offer numerous explanations for historical inaccuracies in her Author’s Note, but she does not correct either of these questionable historical interpretations. Readers who skip the Author’s Note may not realize that Roger Bacon did not actually “discover” gunpowder, that Pope Clement IX was not murdered, or that it would have been impossible to travel from England to Paris in a single medieval day.
The intent of Black Powder is admirable, to call attention to the gun violence plaguing our society. One of the more chilling facts in Rabin’s author’s note is the following:
“The rate of firearms-related death in the U.S. among children under the age of fifteen is nearly a dozen times higher than it is in twenty-five other industrialized nations combined.” If Black Powder is able to spur teens to action on this crisis, then it is a worthwhile endeavor. I would not, however, suggest this book to a sophisticated YA reader or a history buff, such as myself. I will ask my daughter to read it and see what she thinks.