January 25, 2018


The Thrifty Guide to Ancient Rome: A Handbook for Time Travelers. By Jonathan W. Stokes. Illustrated by David Sossella. Viking. $17.99.

The Thrifty Guide to the American Revolution: A Handbook for Time Travelers. By Jonathan W. Stokes. Illustrated by David Sossella. Viking. $17.99.

     Reduced to ink-on-paper volumes from their original holographic publications in 2163 and 2164, respectively, these first two Thrifty Guide volumes are just what well-dressed (or at least adequately dressed) time travelers need to visit times and places where they may be attacked by Barbarians or Redcoats, need to deal with attacking lions or fire a musket, and above all, must find decent hotel rooms. Published under the auspices of Time Corp. (“Serving Yesterday, for a Better Tomorrow, Today”), introduced by and occasionally intruded into by the firm’s Founder and Corporate Overlord, Finn Greenquill, these handy guides are one result of the economic collapse of 2150 that made it possible for Time Corp. “to buy most of America in a hostile takeover.” The book on Rome thoughtfully provides a “map of Time Corp Headquarters in New New New New New New New York, AD 2163,” showing where to find the hyperintelligent dire wolves, giant insect people, dinosaurs, mutant lawyers, and “Tourist Information and Mugging Center.” On the whole, it is better to be somewhere else. Such as ancient Rome or the American Revolution. Which brings us to the purpose of these books.

     It is important to read the books’ various warnings before actually using the guides. From the Rome book: “If you purchase this book, travel back in time, and give yourself this book in order to avoid having to purchase it, the Time Patrol may put you in jail before even sentencing you.” From the American Revolution volume: “Transporting saber-toothed tigers to the Battle of Bunker Hill is hilarious, but illegal.” As for having meals with celebrities of their eras, Julius Caesar never picks up the tab, and George Washington “is tired of being everyone’s lunch date,” but “former US President Millard Fillmore…wishes to announce that he is very much available.”

     Absorbing the basics is important. From the Rome book: “Some scientists believe there may still be infinite possible worlds, though all scientists agree there is no possible world in which you can catch a cab during rush hour in Manhattan.” From the American Revolution guide: the horse-drawn time machine for this particular jaunt “features reclining seats, cup holders, and a convenient weapons rack for holding muskets, rifles, and iridium blasters.” Actually, iridium blasters figure in both these books, and for good reason, because travelers who neglect to bring them along may be unable to return to the present (22nd century), and as the American Revolution book explains, “Time travelers killed by the British Army will receive no refund for this book,” which would be a real shame.

     The thing about all this jocular absurdity and absurd jocularity is that Jonathan W. Stokes and David Sossella have actually put it at the service of some genuine history. For all their bizarre trappings and constant self-references (and references to Finn Greenquill and the Time Patrol), both these books are crammed with real-world facts, which are presented so entertainingly that young readers will scarcely be aware that they are learning anything. After accurately explaining the sanitation-related reasons for the very high death rate of babies in ancient Rome, for example, Stokes writes that “no matter how deadly a city is, certain people are always willing to move there – much like modern-day Los Angeles,” and then offers a footnote: “Time Corp.’s legal department wishes to point out that the writer of this paragraph actually lives in Los Angeles.” The Rome book not only discusses Roman history and politics but also explores hairstyles and actual Roman recipes for hair dye: Pliny the Elder says red hair dye is made by mixing “goat fat with beechwood ashes.” There are reviews of fictitious restaurants, explanations of what to do if you are injured, and discussions of various Roman emperors and other important historical figures. These are interspersed with sections calling “Pranking the Past,” such as one suggesting traveling to feudal Japan, picking up some samurai, and dropping them in a Roman barracks to find out whether samurai or Roman soldiers are better fighters. The point of all this is to imagine, not at all seriously, how time travelers – oblivious to the real customs of the past – might interact with and learn about ancient history. The whole approach is faintly snarky and certainly disrespectful by any traditional standards of history, but it is also loads of fun and really does provide accurate factual information – although it is not always completely clear where fun breaks off and facts emerge.

     The book on the American Revolution offers more of the same. “If you are shot by a British musket, just remember, you signed a waiver,” writes Finn Greenquill, urging time travelers to buy Time Corp. life insurance before departure. Elsewhere, Stokes explains what goes into firing a musket, and it is far from a simple process. On another matter, in establishing the basis of the American Revolution, Stokes discusses why so many settlers left England “to live in a cold, rocky, mosquito-infested land filled with the constant threat of war, disease, starvation, and lousy baseball teams” (a typical example of needing to know where the serious breaks off and the silly begins). Stokes explains that American colonists at the time of the Revolution all have “a strong independent streak – they don’t like to be bossed around by the English king.” This helps set the stage for the eventual move toward independence, which is then discussed with considerable attention to reality, such as the fact that at the Boston Tea Party, 342 chests of tea were hacked open with tomahawks and thrown into the harbor. There are some genuinely interesting items here, such as the fact that nearly 10% of the colonial army is African-American, and there are some sarcastic-but-accurate facts, such as the British habit of standing “in an open field with a close formation that is super easy to shoot at” while wearing “bright colors such as red to make yourself an easy target.” The book goes through the major battles and some of the major figures of American Revolutionary times, declaring winners (based on casualties) of the battles and throwing out fascinating tidbits of information along the way – for instance, that an 18-year-old lieutenant largely responsible for the colonists’ victory at Trenton in 1776 was James Monroe, who became the fifth president of the United States. Stokes has also done a fine job of digging up material that most histories pass over lightly or omit: he includes not only Daniel Morgan, hero of the Battle of Cowpens (1781), but also Morgan’s cousin, Nancy Hart, who faced down half a dozen British soldiers in her home.

     In both these books, Sossella’s illustrations complement Stokes’ writing by combining accuracy (in portraying period costumes, for instance) with amusement (in some of the activities shown). These two books are clearly the start of a series that can go on for years. Or perhaps they have gone on for years and are now coming around for a second try. Or a third. Which brings us to the American Revolution book’s “Signs You Are Caught in a Time Loop,” one of which is, “If your day planner for tomorrow resembles everything you did yesterday, you may be caught in a time loop.” Uh-oh.

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