In Harry Turtledove's The Disunited States of America, Justin's having the worst trip ever. He and his mother are Time Traders, traveling undercover to different alternate realities of Earth so they can take valuable resources back to their own timeline. In some of these worlds, Germany won World War I or the world has been destroyed by nuclear warfare. Justin and his mother are in an America that never became the United States: each state is like a country, and many of them are at war with each other. Their mission takes them to Virginia, which is on the verge of bloody violence with Ohio.
Beckie is from California, and like the rest of her world, unaware that Time Traders exist. The only reason she's in small town Virginia is because her grandmother dragged her there to visit old relatives. Beckie is just as horrified by the violence and racism of the alternate Virginia as Justin is, and the two are drawn to one another. But when full-fledged war breaks out between the States, including a biologically designed plague, will either of them manage to get back home? Forget about home: Will they make it out alive?
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About the Author
The author of many science fiction and fantasy novels, including The Guns of the South, the "World War" series, and The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, Harry Turtledove lives in Los Angeles with his wife, novelist Laura Frankos, and their four daughters.
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The Disunited States Of America
By Harry Turtledove
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2006 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
Beckie Royer was running guns from Ohio into Virginia, and she was scared to death. She hadn't intended to be a gun runner. She didn't want to be one. At the moment, she didn't have much choice.
Her grandmother and the man she called Uncle Luke even though he was only a relation by marriage sat in the front seat of his beat-up old white Honda. Beckie had the back seat — what there was of it — to herself. Her feet wouldn't go all the way to the floorboards, and with that cramped back seat she needed all the leg room she could get.
There was a gray blanket down there. When she lifted it to see what it hid, she almost passed out. Half a dozen assault rifles, and heaven only knew how many clips of ammunition.
She didn't say anything. She couldn't say anything. She was too scared — scared not just of the guns but scared that if she opened her mouth Uncle Luke would throw her and Gran out of the car and leave them stuck in the middle of nowhere. He hadn't wanted to drive them to Elizabeth, Virginia, in the first place. If his wife (who really was Gran's sister) hadn't insisted, he never would have done it.
Not for the first time, Beckie wished she were back in California. California had money, and it was at peace with most of its neighbors. Oh, the border squabble with Baja never went away, but it never got too hot, either. Baja knew California would clean its clock if it tried anything real grabby.
Gran had been born in Elizabeth a long time ago, back in the 2020s. Now that she'd turned seventy, she wanted to see her friends and relatives one last time before she died. That was what she said, anyway — Beckie wouldn't have been surprised if she lasted to a hundred.
So Gran took Beckie with her and flew to Columbus. Beckie had been excited then. How many seventeen-year-old girls from Los Angeles got a chance to go to other states, especially states filled with history and blood like Ohio and Virginia?
Everything turned out to be the world's biggest yawn. All Gran wanted to do was visit other old people. The dialects they spoke among themselves were so different from the English Beckie was used to that she hardly understood them. Even the food tasted weird. Nobody'd ever heard of salsa or cilantro. Gran's relatives hardly even used garlic. Boring!
And now the Honda was bouncing through the potholed streets of Belpre, Ohio. The town couldn't have had more than nine people in it. The bridge over the Ohio River looked a million years old. She hoped it wouldn't fall down. Right in the middle of the bridge, in the middle of the river, sat the Virginia border checkpoint.
Uncle Luke stopped the car. Two Virginia border guards in old-fashioned gray uniforms strode up to it. Beckie tried to keep her teeth from chattering. If they found those guns, they would throw her in jail and lose the key. They would figure the rifles were bound for the black guerrillas down in the lowlands. For all Beckie knew, they would be right.
How she wished she were bored now!
"From Ohio, eh?" one of the guards said. "I'm gonna have to see your papers." To Beckie's ear, he spoke with a peculiar nasal twang. Papers sounded like pipers. She could follow him, but she had to work at it.
"Give me your passports." Uncle Luke — Uncle Luke who wasn't an uncle, Uncle Luke who ran guns — held out his hand, first to Gran, then to Beckie.
She didn't want to give hers up, but what choice did she have? She felt even more naked, even more afraid, without it. She hadn't thought she could.
Uncle Luke's passport got only a brief glance. The guard stamped it and handed it back. But when he saw Gran's and Beckie's, he stiffened like a bird dog coming to point. "Hey, Cloyd! Lookie here!" he called. "These folks're from California!"
"From California?" Cloyd exclaimed. "What in blue blazes are they doin' here?"
"Beats me," the other guard said. "If I lived in California, I sure wouldn't come here, and that's a fact." He let out a wistful sigh, then bent down to speak to Gran and Beckie. Beckie kept her feet very still on the blanket. If she wiggled — and she had a habit of wiggling when she was nervous — the guns might make a noise. That would be dreadful, or whatever was worse than dreadful. "What're you California ladies doin' comin' into Virginia?" he asked.
"I was born in Elizabeth," Gran answered, and the hill-country twang in her voice showed she was telling the truth. "I'm comin' back to visit kinfolk and friends one last time 'fore I die, and I want my granddaughter here to know where her roots are."
"How about that?" the guard said. "If'n I moved away, reckon I'd be prouder I was gone than of where I came from. Ain't that right, Cloyd?"
"Expect it is." Cloyd kept staring at Beckie's passport and Gran's — her real name was Myrtle Bentley, but except when she had to sign something she didn't use it. Beckie wondered if he'd ever seen a California passport before. This was about as no-account a border crossing as the state of Virginia had. Why would a Californian want to come across here? Beckie sure didn't, not with those guns under her feet.
"California," the other guard, the one whose name she didn't know, said with a jealous sigh. California was big and rich and strong, all right. If people in another state tried mistreating its citizens, it could throw rockets all the way across North America. It hadn't needed to for a long time, but it could.
Beckie realized Uncle Luke was using those precious California passports as a shield to make sure his car didn't get searched. Normally, the guards would have looked to see if he was carrying moonshine or grass, trying to sneak them into Virginia without paying duty. That kind of smuggling happened all the time. Guns ... Guns were a different business.
And Uncle Luke's gamble was going to pay off. "They have the right visas and everything?" the guard by the car asked Cloyd.
"Sure enough do," Cloyd said. He took the California passports over to the kiosk in the middle of the bridge and ran them through a computer terminal. He stamped them, too, as the other guard had stamped Uncle Luke's commonplace Ohio passport — Virginia was an old-fashioned place. Then he brought them back and returned them. "Here y'go, folks. Enjoy your stay."
"Thank you kindly," Gran said. Uncle Luke didn't say anything — he was as sour as an unripe persimmon. He just drove across the bridge, across the river, and into Virginia.
As Beckie stuck her passport into her purse, she let out an enormous sigh of relief. "What's eating you, kid?" Uncle Luke said.
"Nothing." Beckie didn't know if he would get mad that she'd found the guns. She didn't know, and she didn't want to find out. She kept her mouth shut.
"Beckie's just glad to be coming into Virginia," Gran said. "Isn't that right?"
"Sure," Beckie lied. She hadn't got on real well with her grandmother before this trip. Gran wasn't a sweet old lady — her favorite sport was complaining. Traveling with her for so long ... Well, Beckie didn't like her better now than she had when they set out from Los Angeles.
But she had her precious passport back again, and she was heading for Elizabeth, not wherever Virginia kept the closest maximum-security prison. She wouldn't be a headline — unless Uncle Luke drove off the side of the road. It was narrow and winding, and he seemed to be going much too fast. She almost said something — but the less she said to him, the better, so she kept quiet again.
Parkersburg, the first town on the Virginia side of the border, went by in a blur. Once upon a time, it had been an oil town. Outside of Texas and Russian Alaska, there weren't many of those left in North America any more. Even for California, oil was hard to come by.
Kanawha flew by even faster, because it was smaller. The main highway went south toward Charleston — that was the biggest city in this part of Virginia. If you dropped it on Los Angeles, you wouldn't even notice where it hit. But it was what the locals had to be proud of, and they were.
But that was the main highway. State Route 14 ran southeast towards Elizabeth. Uncle Luke's car seemed to hit every hole in the road, and the road had plenty to hit. Beckie's teeth went together with a sharp click at one of the bad ones — Uncle Luke's shocks were shot, too, if he had any. The rifles under Beckie's feet shifted with a metallic clatter.
"What's that?" Gran ears weren't the greatest, even with a hearing aid, but she noticed the noise.
"It's nothin'," Uncle Luke said.
"I swear I heard a rattle." Gran didn't know when to leave well enough — or bad enough — alone.
"It's nothin', I told you!" This time, Uncle Luke all but shouted it. Gran wasn't much good at taking a hint, but she did now. Beckie breathed a little easier — only a little, but even that felt good. The guns were bad enough. She didn't want a quarrel in the car, too.
They drove past Bloody Hollow — a nice, cheery name for a place, and one that fit too well with what lay under the gray blanket — and Elizabeth Hill before they got to Elizabeth itself. The little town lay on the south bank of a loop of the Kanawha River. A sign at the edge said, WELCOME TO ELIZABETH, SEAT OF WIRT COUNTY. POPULATION (2092) — 1,316.
To Beckie, it looked like the smallest, most godforsaken place in the world. Then Gran said, "My goodness, how town has grown! There weren't even a thousand people here when I was born." So it all depended on your point of view.
Uncle Luke gave his: "Lord, what a miserable dump." Beckie didn't like agreeing with him on anything. He was so sour, he made Gran seem sweet by comparison, which wasn't easy. But she would have had a hard time telling him he was wrong.
The county courthouse was smaller and dumpier than a lot of hamburger joints Beckie had seen. It was made of brown bricks that looked a million years old. They would have told her she was a long way from home all by themselves. Because of earthquakes, hardly anybody built with brick in California. The courthouse sat at the corner of Route 14 and a narrow street named — logically enough — Court. Uncle Luke stopped the Honda right by the courthouse. He hit the button that popped the trunk. "You guys get out here," he announced.
"What?" Gran sounded ticked. "I reckoned you'd take me all the way to Ethel's place." She never said reckoned in California. Funny words were coming back to her along with her accent.
"Well, then, you reckoned wrong," Uncle Luke said flatly. "You won't get lost, and you won't get tired. This place isn't big enough for that." No matter how snotty he was, he was right again.
"How will we get back?" Beckie asked.
"Not my worry," he said. "Bound to be a bus or something. Come on — hop out. Time's a-wasting."
Beckie almost jumped out of the car. She didn't want to stay near those assault rifles a second longer than she had to. Gran moved slower, not just because she was old but because she was giving Uncle Luke a piece of her mind. Beckie got their suitcases out of the trunk. "The nerve of that man!" Gran fumed as she finally joined Beckie on the sidewalk. The Honda zoomed away. Wherever Uncle Luke was going, he was in a bigger hurry to get there than he had been to come here.
"Gran," Beckie said quietly, "he had guns in the back of the car."
"Maybe he's going hunting after he dropped us off. Maybe that's why he was in such a rush."
"Not unless whatever he's hunting walks on two legs. They weren't just rifles. They were the kind of guns you see on the news, where the person who's got one just did something horrible with it," Beckie said.
"Don't be silly," Gran said. "Luke wouldn't do anything like that."
How do you know? Beckie wouldn't have put anything past the man who wasn't her real relative. But she didn't argue with Gran. She didn't see the point. She wouldn't change her grandmother's mind — nothing this side of a nuke could do that. And she couldn't prove anything now, no matter what she thought.
Gran was looking around with wonder on her usually sour face. "All these places I haven't seen for so long," she murmured. "There's Zollicoffer's drug store. And look." She pointed to a hill off to the southwest, not far out of town. "That there's Jephany Knob."
"Oh, boy," Beckie said in a hollow voice. She was looking around, too. The courthouse had a brass memorial plaque fastened to the side. WIRT COUNTY'S HEROIC DEAD, it said. There were names from the War of 1812, the War of 1833, the First Ohio-Virginia War, the Three States' War, the First Black Insurrection, the Great War, the Second Black Insurrection, the Atlantic War, the Florida Intervention, and all the other fights Virginia had got into over the past three centuries. Wirt County couldn't have a whole lot of people — all of Virginia put together had fewer people than Los Angeles County. But the men here weren't shy about going to war.
While Gran and Beckie looked around, people from Elizabeth were looking at them. Beckie needed a moment to realize that. She needed another moment to realize they weren't friendly looks — not even a little bit. We're strangers, she thought. Everybody here knew everybody else. How often did Elizabeth see strangers? And what did it do to them when it did?
In Los Angeles, you were lucky if you knew your neighbors. Your friends were more likely to be the people you went to school with or, if you were a grown-up, worked with. It wasn't like that here. POPULATION — 1,316. How long had these people been gossiping about one another and feuding with one another? Since the town was founded, whenever that was. A long time ago — Beckie was positive of that.
A woman a little younger than Gran came up to them. She was wearing a frumpy print dress. Well, it would have been frumpy in California, anyhow. For all Beckie knew, it was the height of style in western Virginia. Hesitantly, the woman said, "You're Myrtle Collins, isn't that right?"
"I sure am," Gran answered. Collins had to be her maiden name. Beckie wasn't sure she'd ever heard it before. Gran went on, "Are you Violet Brown?"
"No, I'm Daisy," the local woman said. "Daisy Springer nowadays. You went to school with Violet, and you came over to the house all the time." She smiled. "I was the kid sister who made trouble."
"Oh, were you ever!" Gran said. She started talking about stuff that had happened a long, long time ago. She didn't introduce Beckie to Daisy Brown — no, Springer — or anything. She might have forgotten Beckie was along at all. She'd fallen back into her own early days, and nothing else mattered.
A man came by sweeping the sidewalk with a push broom. You wouldn't see anything like that in L.A. — everybody there used blowers. The man was black, the first black Beckie had seen in Elizabeth. He had what looked like the crummiest job in town. Things were like that all over the Southeast — except in Mississippi, where blacks were on top and persecuted whites instead of the other way around.
"Gran —" Beckie said after a while. Her grandmother stood right there next to her, but didn't hear a thing. It wasn't just because Gran was going deaf, either. She was off in another place — no, in another time. She and Daisy Springer were reliving the days when they were both kids. They were talking about people Beckie'd never heard of. Even if she had heard of them, she wouldn't have cared about them, not one bit.
"And do you recollect the time Hattie Williamson's dog —" Gran started yet another story.
"Gran —" Beckie tried again. She'd never heard her grandmother say recollect, either.
Gran still didn't remember — or recollect — that she was alive. She'd forgotten Beckie existed, or that most of the forty years and more since she moved away from Elizabeth had ever happened. Will I act that way when I get old? Beckie wondered. She hoped not, anyway.
Even if Gran had forgotten about her, Daisy Springer still knew she was there. "This'll be your granddaughter, Myrt?" the local woman asked. That made Beckie blink one more time. Myrt? She couldn't imagine anybody ever calling Gran by a name like that. It was like calling the Rock of Gibraltar Rockie.
But Gran didn't seem to mind. She even kind of smiled. And she finally noticed Beckie was still beside her, and she hadn't fallen back into the 2030s or whenever they were talking about. "Yes, this here's Beckie Royer. She's my daughter Trish's little girl."
Excerpted from The Disunited States Of America by Harry Turtledove. Copyright © 2006 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A fun YA story in which a couple of teens are trapped on the Ohio / VA border in a war between those two states in a 2091 America that never replaced the Articles of Confederation. One of the teens was visiting from CA, a much more progressive state than VA, especially when it comes to race relations. The other teen is a visitor from an alternate time line, essentially our world in 2091. Touches on issues of racism in a mature and interesting manner that won't come off as preachy.
This outing by Turtledove could have been left on the PC screen. It was, by far, the most disappointing work by the otherwise master of alternate worlds and alternate history. The dialogue was hackneyed and tiresome, the characters were too predictable, as was the plot. This book seemed written for teenagers (young ones, at that) and does not belong in the collection. I've read just about everything he's written and this one must have been written by a novel-writing software--way too simplistic and just plain boring!
Time Traders laterally travel from our realm to other timelines to sell slightly better products than the locals make. Each Time Trader knows that when one is a Crosstime Traffic trader they must never display too much technological superiority as blending in with the more backwoods natives is the key to success. Recent high school graduate Justin Monroe comes from a family of Time Traders. Currently he and Time Trader Randolph Brooks are in a version of the United States that is not united and in which states constantly are at war with one another. He looks forward to going home to start college as his gut tells him this trip seems more dangerous than any he has been on. From Southern California, Beckie Royer accompanies her Gran and ¿Uncle¿ Luke as they head to Elizabeth, Virginia to sell assault rifles to African-American rebels. With the country of Virginia on the brink of a racial civil war, neighboring country to the north Ohio sends a deadly virus into their nation that could only come from a Crosstime Traveler. As they are quarantined while people die from the deadly biological attack Beckie meets Justin and Randolph --- The fourth Crosstime Traffic book is a superb alternate history science fiction tale that grips the young adult audience from the moment that Justin is trapped and never let¿s go until the final confrontation. The story line is fast-paced, but makes a strong condemnation of racism and war with the fractured disunited States. Beckie is a terrific protagonist who provides insight into her world with little interwoven tidbits like no one in Ohio or Virginia messes with someone carrying a passport from the superpower California. Justin is also a fine character as he tries to hide his origin while wondering who from his timeline broke the law. THE DISUNITED STATES OF AMERICA is another winner from Harry Turtledove. --- Harriet Klausner