- By Charlie Lovett
- Blackstone Publishing
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Clarissa Harwood
- September 26, 2021
This dual-timeline story about the mysteries of children’s literature will inform and delight.
At the turn of the 20th century, America was undergoing dramatic change which today amounts to a treasure trove of triumphs and tragedies for any contemporary historical novelist. In the dual-timeline novel Escaping Dreamland, Charlie Lovett mines that rich history with skill and empathy.
The early 20th-century timeline is focused on three protagonists: Magda Herzenberger, a survivor of the Slocum ferry disaster; Thomas de Peyster, a journalist from a wealthy family; and Eugene Pinkney, a scientist who happens to be gay. The story of how they meet and become the “Tremendous Trio” unfolds against the backdrop of New York, especially Coney Island in its heyday.
Lovett includes notable real-life events and famous real-life people such as Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, the Vanderbilts, and Edward Stratemeyer, publisher of popular children’s series the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins. Readers already familiar with the period may be forgiven for thinking that Lovett was trying to include every celebrity of the era, but those less familiar will likely be fascinated by all the famous people the protagonists encounter.
Escaping Dreamland is very much a love song to New York, and both timelines express the magical sense of possibilities in the city: “He loved this about New York — that you could walk into any one of thousands of unassuming buildings and find something within to strike awe.”
The modern timeline follows Robert Parrish, a bestselling author struggling to write his second novel. He is also struggling to hold onto a difficult relationship with his longtime girlfriend. He knows that his failure to open up about a tragic secret from his past is what holds him back in both his work and his love life, but he can’t face that secret until he goes on a mission to find out about the real lives of the children’s-book authors who called themselves the “Tremendous Trio.”
Even though Robert has fond memories of reading the trio’s books as a child, his memories are bound up with his secret: he “had loved the Tremendous Trio, and loved sharing the stories with his father, until [the stories] had ruined everything.”
How exactly Magda, Eugene, and Thomas and their alter-ego protagonists “ruined everything” for Robert keeps the reader guessing until the end, and the unfolding of this final mystery weaves perfectly into the “love and loss” stories of both timelines.
The metafictional layers of Escaping Dreamland are comforting (as opposed to experimental), with the main protagonists in both timelines struggling with their role as writers who are deeply invested in children’s stories.
As a professor of children’s literature, I was delighted by the many ways in which children’s stories inspire and mold the protagonists. I also loved the subtle message that popular fiction for children is something to be celebrated just as much as the more-privileged literary classics.
A recurring theme is the tension between the desire to be known and the fear of vulnerability in relationships. As Robert ponders telling his girlfriend the secret from his past that changed his life, “he tried rehearsing the story he would tell [her], but he quickly realized that the truth didn’t require rehearsal, only courage.”
This novel is about the ways in which childhood stories become legacies that weave themselves into our adult identities. It is also about legacies in a larger sense, shown through Robert’s musings about having inherited his grandfather’s ability to suppress the tragedies of the past:
“[H]e realized that inheritance was no gift. His failed relationships, his estrangement from his mother, and his occasional periods of depression and isolation must all be linked to the guilt he refused to talk about.”
The crisp clarity of Lovett’s prose, as well as the way Escaping Dreamland immerses the reader in its historical time and place, reminded me of the novels of Ian McEwan and A.S. Byatt. Lovett’s language is never obtrusive, often giving this reader the impression of looking through a spotlessly clean pane of glass at story in its purest form.
Like the best children’s literature, this novel will inform and delight adult readers who are nostalgic for the books of their youth.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]
Clarissa Harwood is the author of two historical novels, Impossible Saints and Bear No Malice, published by Pegasus Books. She holds a Ph.D. in 19th-century British literature and lives in Ontario.