Boyds Mills Press (Highlights), 2016
Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a peculiar gift: she can “rewind” any event that happens to her and replay its past 23 minutes, making it come out differently. All she has to do is wrap her arms about herself and say “playback.” Mind you, she can play back only 23 minutes, and only 10 times. Still, it sounds like an enviable skill (think how different your life could be if you could just undo!) but as she has found, it’s not that simple. For one thing, the played-back version isn’t always an improvement over the original. For another, the skill is hard to use when she’s in a state of semi-shock: Zoe remembers with regret that she didn’t even think to use it when her mother shot her father during their session with a family counselor. As a result, she now lives in a group home, and she’s in trouble because she has just stolen her social work file, in which counselors to whom she has tried to explain her gift have called her “delusional.” Furthermore, she has said such choice things to the housemother who tried to stop her that she’s not sure she can go back.
As Zoe is wandering around the streets of Rochester with her file, wondering what to do next, pouring rain forces her to nip into a bank for shelter. Her blue hair and the damp file hidden under her shabby T-shirt make the security guard follow her every move suspiciously, so she tries to look as if she’s on business, scribbling the names of Santa’s reindeer on the back of a deposit slip – but then she trips and drops everything. A young man with a nice smile helps her pick her papers up and notes that the reindeer whose name she couldn’t remember is Blixen. Suddenly, a guy in a hoodie holds up the bank at gunpoint and asks Zoe to take the guard’s gun. The kind young man steps to her defense, trying to reason with the robber, but he’s taken hostage and shot dead as the guard kills the robber. Horrified, Zoe escapes, wraps her arms around herself and says “playback.” But the playback can’t stop the robbery – only how it’s handled. Successive playbacks thus result in more deaths, including that of the young man (whose name emerges as Daniel), and injuries, including Zoe’s. Desperate to get it right, Zoe plays the scene back again and again, gradually coming to know Daniel – who alone of all the grownups she has dealt with lately, takes her seriously, even though she has to re-introduce herself to him every 23 minutes, and even after he gets a glimpse of her file. Will she be able to save him from death? Each failure makes her more determined, but remember, she only gets 10 tries.
You will read this charming book straight through to find out what happens. But if, as is entirely likely, you turn back and read it again, you’ll love Zoe and Daniel more and more – and admire the deft wit with which Vande Velde has filled a back-to-the-future story with compassionate meditation on human nature, luck, and courage.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.