An ancient message in a bottle of gripe water sets in motion a story that moves back and forth between India and the United States, as well as between characters in two different centuries. This is a book about letters and writing, a phantom postman, a calligrapher’s assistant and a pompous genie. It is also a story about friendship that develops under unpredictable circumstances with voices echoing across time and space, bringing history into the present while connecting east and west.
Grade 4–7—Gil, 14, has been expelled from school and sent to the Massachusetts coast to reside with his poetry-loving, eccentric grandfather. The old man doesn’t own a television, uses a typewriter, drives a beat-up Volkswagen, and can only offer his grandson a 30-year-old bicycle as transportation. While walking his grandfather’s dog, Gil decides to explore Rattle Beach. A curious-looking bottle floating in the water attracts his attention. For a joke, he pens a distress call, places it inside the empty container, and throws it back into the water. Returning later, he finds the bottle again and discovers an urgent message inside it. It is from Sikander, a boy from India who is living 100 years in the past, when a war is brewing. As the two boys continue to correspond, Sikander’s family gets into a deadly situation and he begs Gil for help. Other paranormal events (occur) include a ghostly mailman, a skeletal hand, a djinn (or genie), and a love affair that spans the centuries …
Robyn Gioia School Library Journal
Alter’s multi-stranded tale offers something for almost every fan of nonheroic fantasy—from magic and time travel to a ghost, buried treasure, and a grisly severed hand with an agenda. Staying temporarily with his grandfather in a Massachusetts coastal town, Gil and new friend Nargis, a local age-mate of Indian descent, find an antique bottle that carries messages back and forth through time. Soon they are corresponding with a nineteenth-century calligrapher’s apprentice in India, whose own friend has been nabbed by deserters from a threatening British force. Enter a ghostly Massachusetts postman, wearily carrying never-delivered letters that can save the kidnapped lad, avert the battle, and rekindle a century-old romance on Gil’s side of the world. So much is going on here that when a bureaucratic British genie wheels in toward the end to deliver the old letters at Gil’s command, it’s hardly suprising. Nonetheless, Alter juggles the elements (and more besides!) with reasonable expertise, and readers who can readily suspend their disbelief will enjoy the show. Grades 5-8.