Books: Then and Now
Review: Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman
“If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?” Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman was first published in 1984. Reading it again recently, I realized just why it had survived the many culls of our still-swollen book collection. If novels had a biological makeup, this one would surely have been blessed with the genomes for an exceptionally long shelf-life. If you distilled its storytelling qualities down to an essence that could be described in just one word, it would be: exceptional.
Elleander Morning is a first novel, for what that’s worth. Much is often made of the distinction between a writer’s first book and the ones that (might) come later, “debut novelist” being a term often tainted with mild condescension. I don’t put much stock in that kind of thinking. First or fifteenth, you either like a book or you don’t. And there are many highly respected writers who only ever published one full-length novel, some of which became enduring touchstones of literature. Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey are but two examples. This is all to say that Jerry Yulsman also scored a home run the first time he was up at bat.
…it is a novel that reads as well today as it did when it was first published thirty-three years ago.
Just to be clear, I am not comparing Elleander Morning with Doctor Z. or Dorian Grey in the sense of where it falls along the spectrum of literature. Just that it is a novel that reads as well today as it did when it was first published thirty-three years ago.
I suspect that the term counterfactual history was just an alpha wave in the brain of a sociology grad student when this book was written, but that is the crux of Elleander Morning. Think of how the world might have turned out if Adolph Hitler had been murdered in 1913 long before he rose to power, and you’ll have the zygote of the plotline.
Hitler’s murder is a pivot-point upon which the story turns, and turns and turns…. but there is ever so much more to it and the reader accompanies the protagonist, Leslie Morning, on her journey to discover and uncover (literally) a mind-numbing family secret. The book is constructed on the foundation of a terrestrial time loop.
Her reasons are very personal but ultimately she wants to try and stop a catastrophic event in world history.
I confess to a weakness for time-travel stories and that, perhaps, is one of the reasons why I enjoyed this novel so much the first time I read it as a book-club selection and why I have held on to it for more than thirty years. In a nutshell, a woman given a second chance at life moves back and forth chronologically through an eighty-four year window of time. Her reasons are very personal but ultimately she wants to try and stop a catastrophic event in world history.
Notwithstanding the simple premise, there is no predictability about this book. There’s a surprise behind every door that Leslie Morning opens, looking for what happened to her mysterious grandmother. There’s also a delightful salaciousness interpolated into the story line; what the British would probably call ‘lots of naughty bits’. Some readers today might be uncomfortable with a few of the scenes because of the age of the characters, but they reflected the reality of the time period.
… a fictional version of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop exists in the form of the magnitrain, where passengers can travel from Los Angeles to New York in just over an hour.
One of the charming things about reading historical fiction is suddenly discovering a real-life character among the fictional creations and this book has its fair share. H.G. Wells plays a significant role in the story’s parallel universe and names of other notable people of the nineteenth and twentieth century dot the chapters like raisins in a rice pudding. Elleander Morning is also liberally flavoured with prescience in the same vein (but to a lesser extent) as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
For example, a fictional version of Elon Musk’s Hyperloop exists in the form of the magnitrain, where passengers can travel from Los Angeles to New York in just over an hour. The one-way ticket fee is twenty-three dollars and eighty cents. The magnitrain achieves a maximum speed of 4200 miles per hour on a 2000 mile straightaway across the American Southwest before the seats rotate and face to the rear for its deceleration for arrival at Penn Station.
There are also nods to the ever-appreciating price of art. Jerry Yulsman’s fictional character supports artists like Pablo Picasso, Marcel Dechamp and Jackson Pollock because she can afford their work and believes in helping them survive. There is a great scene set in 1912 where she has just bought a Picasso painting and happily paid three times the asking price. Her lover gently chides her for the purchase and she responds.
“Half the artists in Paris are starving.”
“You’re a saint.” He reached out to take her hand.
“Not quite a saint, Bertie.” With her free hand she poured coffee for both of them. “No matter what I paid, it would be exploitive.” She paused, caught his eye. “The work of art you bought today will be worth ten thousand times what you just paid for it.”
When the above passage was written, the author had noted the appreciated price of the Picasso to be two-hundred and fifty thousand pounds in 1984. In 2015, a Picasso sold at auction for one-hundred and seventy-nine million dollars. Jerry Yulsman died in 1999. His vision of an alternate history timeline for the world was spectacularly imaginative. But he also understood his real-life subject matter extremely well.
The time-travel elements aside, Elleander Morning also has all of the page-turning elements that make for a compelling and entertaining read; great word-crafting, believable characters, international intrigue and a touching love story interlaced with tasteful eroticism. It also offers a reader an abstract look at a world that might have been, without World War II, The Holocaust and the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests. Potentially, a much better place. Excellent! REG
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