One of the most egregious gaps in my reading history is books written by or about transgender people. In September I finished the fabulous audiobook by Janet Mock, Redefining Realness, and reviewed it a few weeks ago. but before that, nothing. Then in October, I finally got around to reading The Unintentional Time Travel by Everett Maroon, which was recommended to me by a few people and had been praised by one of the co-founders of GayYA.org. The blurb promises an action-packed and exciting adventure with time travel and a complex exploration of gender identity. So I knew I had to read it.
The plot is rather complex, but the book blurb actually does a great job of summarizing it! Not every book blurb does this, which is why I like to offer my own summaries in reviews, but the official one will do for now:
Fifteen-year-old Jack Bishop has mad skills with cars and engines, but knows he’ll never get a driver’s license because of his epilepsy. Agreeing to participate in an experimental clinical trial to find new treatments for his disease, he finds himself in a completely different body—that of a girl his age, Jacqueline, who defies the expectations of her era. Since his seizures usually give him spazzed out visions, Jack presumes this is a hallucination. Feeling fearless, he steals a horse, expecting that at any moment he’ll wake back up in the clinical trial lab. When that doesn’t happen, Jacqueline falls unexpectedly in love, even as the town in the past becomes swallowed in a fight for its survival. Jack/Jacqueline is caught between two lives and epochs, and must find a way to save everyone around him as well as himself. And all the while, he is losing time, even if he is getting out of algebra class.
Please read the blurb above! ↑↑↑↑
The first thing I want to address is that in the official blurb and throughout the book, Jack is consistently referred to as male, with male pronouns. That’s because when we meet Jack, “he” is a cisgender, presumably heterosexual teenager. However, for the purpose of this review, I will use the pronoun “they” to refer to Jack because once Jack inhabits the body of Jacqueline, Jack’s perspective and gender identity begin to shift and change subtly and then completely.
When Jack first jumps back in time and appears in Jacqueline’s body, Jack sees themselves as a boy literally trapped in a girl’s body. To clarify, since this is obviously a time travel story, I want to point out that Jacqueline lives during the 1920s in a conservative small town. The blurb neglects to point that out, for some reason! At any rate, the longer Jack spends in Jacqueline’s foreign female body, the more comfortable they feel in that skin and mindset. So much so, in fact, that while Jack is in Jacqueline’s body, they fall in love with a young man named Lucas. Their relationship was a tad insta-love for my taste, but I must admit that it was sweet in its own way.
What I found very interesting was that after falling in love with Lucas, Jack jumps back to the “present” 1980s era and remembers everything that happened while in Jacqueline’s body. The love felt for Lucas was real and naturally transferred over to Jack while in Jack’s body. Initially, they are a little confused by these feelings because Jack has liked girls as far as they were aware, but Jack quickly acknowledges and accepts the love they feel for Lucas without placing any labels on it. I absolutely loved this positive representation of a gender non-binary protagonist!
All of this may seem rather confusing and difficult to grasp, especially Jack/Jacqueline’s shifting gender identity. But that’s what I appreciate most about this novel. Everett Maroon doesn’t attempt to make this exploration of gender palatable for readers, especially cisgender readers. As a cis person myself, I admit that I had a difficult time gathering my thoughts for this review because I did not feel I “got” what the author was trying to say about being transgender or gender non-binary. I was looking for a specific “trans narrative” or experience but that’s not what I got. And thank goodness for that because the last thing I should be doing is trying to fit a group as diverse as transgender people into a single “transgender experience.” I certainly do not think that there is one definitive cis gay experience, so why would think there would be one for trans people? Thankfully, The Unintentional Time Traveler quickly disillusioned me of that notion and challenge me in all the right ways.
There’s much more to the plot than the exploration of gender identity, that’s only a small aspect of it. But the plot is quite convoluted, so if I go into it further I will just end up confusing you. All you have to know is that there is lots of time traveling involved. Jack is eventually able to jump back and forth between the past and “present” and is able to rewrite history with their powers. Yes, it is a power that Jack eventually can control and master! The book is also jam-packed with action and I haven’t even begun to explain the chief conflict driving the story, which I will leave for you to discover on your own.
Much of my focus for this review has been around Jack’s complex gender identity, but I neglected to mention that Jack also has a disability (they have epilepsy) and has two best friends — Jeannine, who is Cuban, and Sanjay who is gay and Indian. This book is essentially about the drama surrounding a white family in the 1980s (and in the past), so I appreciated the inclusion of people of color, even if they weren’t as fleshed out as I wish they had been.
The Unintentional Time Traveler is book 1 in a series and the author is hard at work on the sequel! This entry into the series can stand on its own, however, so I do recommend it to fans of YA, books filled with adventure, and for those curating a collection of Queer literature.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Lethe Press, for review consideration.
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Other books about time travel you may enjoy:
A Wish After Midnight – by Zetta Elliott
Santa Muerte – by Lucina Stone
Kindred – by Octavia Butler
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