by Harry Turtledove



288pp/$24.95/September 2006

The Disunited States of America

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The world depicted in Turtledove’s The Disunited States of America may be the one most readers can relate to so far.  This series of world-travel books, in which each is set in a different time-line, so far as dealt with a Roman hegemony (Gunpowder Empires), a Kaiser-ruled San Francisco (Curious Notions), a Muslim-ruled France (In High Places) and now a fractured United States.  Rather than allowing the splintering occur following the Civil War, however, Turtledove digs deeper into American history and allows the Articles of Confederation to stand, at least into the nineteenth century, with no sign of a unifying Constitution to follow them.

The story has time-line native Rebecca Royer visiting the small town of Elizabeth, Virginia from her native California when a war breaks out between Virginia and Ohio.  Although scared and separated from everything she is familiar with, she makes the acquaintance of Justin Monroe, visiting Elizabeth with his uncle "Randolph Brooks."  However, rather than being from Fredericksburg, Justin is really visiting the timeline with his mother, as part of Crosstime Traffic and Brooks, rather than an uncle, is just another of the company's operatives.

The novel focuses on the way Rebecca and Justin handle being in the middle of a war zone and away from their parents and everything that is familiar to them.  For Rebecca, Virginia represents a backwater to her advanced California.  She is far away from her friends and traveling with a grandmother who is disagreeable on her best of days.  Rebecca has to deal with the fear and solitude that comes with being in a strange place and being surrounded by adults two generations ahead of her doesn't help.

Justin, on the other hand, has to be careful not to view the timeline he is in with contempt, for he can be killed and injured as permanently in the war as if he had stayed back home and must remember that for all their apparent backwardness, the Virginians he is surrounded by are technologically advanced.  Although he is able to deal with his fear when bombs begin to fall on him, when the Ohioans launch a viral attack on Virginia, he finds that he can't bear not knowing his mother's fate.

Both of Turtledove's characters demonstrate curiosity, although often in different ways.  Beckie explores the area around Elizabeth and finds herself apparently targeted by a couple of hunters.  This results in a run-in with the local sheriff and the casual racism which is so different from what she is used to in California.  When questioning Justin about the Virginians' feelings towards blacks, he is unable to suppress his own disgust at this timeline's treatment of them, leading Beckie to question Justin's own attitudes.

For his part, Justin is shown as a bit headstrong, a trait which gets him into trouble and helps him grow up during his stay in Virginia.  His rashness also has the affect on Brooks, Beckie, and her grandmother when the disease begins to infect those who are close to them.  Crosstime Traffic comes across as an organization which is trying to change after the scandal that wracked it in In High Places even as it remains true to its operating protocol.

The Disunited States is the most accessible of the four Crosstime Traffic novels, and Turtledove's references back to the previous book are a nice indication that while the books stand entirely on their own there may well be an overarching plot developing that won't be apparent until more books in the series have been published.  Electing a fragmented America based on an event other than the Civil War is also a very nice change of pace for an alternate history novel.

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