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A Novel Approach to the SAT and ACT

Here's a July 2004 review of the novel
by Glenda Winders of Copley News Service

In his second novel aimed at teaching vocabulary to high school students, wordsmith Elster has crafted a history book, a philosophy text and a timely tale of computers and intrigue that is as appealing to adults as it is to the teenagers for whom it is intended.

Students prodded into reading the book for its instructional value will find they have a hard time putting it down. That's because the novel packs so many elements into its accessible paperback format.

First, of course, there are the 2,000 SAT and ACT vocabulary words the book was designed to showcase. Each is printed in boldface type so the reader knows the word has appeared in a past test item and should be noticed and mastered. Readers who already know the word can keep going. Those who are unsure can turn to the back of the book for a glossary that teaches the meaning immediately and offers exercises to test comprehension.

But the words are only part of the fun of this experience. The plot, which keeps the pages turning, is also freighted with all kinds of other information that is likely to come in handy at test time.

The story takes place at Hadleyburg University, and the main characters are four HU students, with other roles coming into play as they are needed to support the action. The star, however, is Mark Twain, who has been transported from 1883 to the present time through the efforts of a hacker who unwittingly taps into an advanced computer program.

Twain lands in a dormitory, where he is adopted by the four friends, whose mission becomes to get him back to his own time period because he has yet to publish "Huckleberry Finn." While the students go to class and attend to their own lives, Twain gets into the scrapes that are typical of all stranded time-travelers. He tries to figure out computers, gets involved in a barroom brawl and comments on the ubiquitous use of the cell phone.

Twain aficionados will appreciate Elster's careful historical and biographical research, as well as clever chapter heads that include "A Connecticut Yankee Holds Court" and "The Men That Disrupted Hadleyburg." They will also recognize many of Twain's wry comments and social observations, such as that the man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the one who can't read them.

While Twain scopes out present-day life, however, Hank, our hero, is contacting Merle (short, of course, for Merlin), the campus computer geek who turns out to be as charming as he is intelligent. The two have a discussion about Twain and computers that develops into a short treatise on history beginning with the invention of the wheel and moving through the Industrial Revolution to the present. A philosophical discussion about the moral dilemmas inherent in living in modern-day culture ensues.

Meanwhile, a subplot develops surrounding the disappearance of the original manuscript of "Huckleberry Finn" from a library display. The person who seeks to destroy it turns out to be the most unlikely suspect, but the motivating psychology is authentic and worth a discussion in itself.

Throw in literary allusions to the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," Keats' sonnets and Tennessee Williams' "Streetcar Named Desire," and what results is a mini-education that should whet the appetite of any student headed for college — or anyone else who delights in the discovery of knowledge.

And here's an excerpt from the novel . . .

: The words printed in boldface are test words. All the test words appearing in Test of Time are defined in a glossary at the back of the book.

Yes, thought Mark Twain in the instant after Orlando’s confrontational words registered in his brain, this is indeed a well-appointed and rather commodious women’s bathroom—and one that I am definitely getting my damn-fool inquisitive head out of right now.

Twain turned and recoiled when he saw the young man who had accosted him. He was a gangling giant, well over six feet tall, with wavy dark hair and fiery blue eyes. Behind this intimidating behemoth, whose head was as high as the lintel of the doorway, hovered another young man and two young women. This bunch ain’t no band of angels comin’ for to carry me home, he concluded. “I was only . . .” he sputtered. “I didn’t mean to . . . It was a mis—”

“Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?” Orlando demanded.

“Uh . . . well, my friend,” Twain croaked nervously, “I can answer the first part of your question with certainty, but I must confess to a large degree of uncertainty regarding the second part.”

Orlando took a step toward him. “This is no time for levity, pal.”

“Please,” Twain said, retreating and raising his hands defensively, “there’s no need to resort to threats or violence. I assure you I’m not here to do any mischief, and I mean you no harm.”

“All right, then,” Orlando said, crossing his arms. “Then why were you going into my friends’ bathroom in the middle of the night?”

“Well, I wasn’t exactly entering it. I was just taking a peek.”

“Pretty kinky,” Hank said from the doorway.

“Weirdo,” Angela said.

“Should I call campus security, Orlando?” asked Aimee, displaying her cellphone.

Could they possibly have a telephone here? Twain thought, eyeing the strange device in Aimee’s hand. Perhaps I could ring the house and ask George to come and get me out of this mess.

“Hang on, Aims,” Orlando said. “Let’s find out a little more about this guy first.” He studied the slender, slope-shouldered, middle-aged man who, despite the harsh winter storm, had no jacket or coat and wore black leather slippers instead of shoes or boots. Something about his face—with its heavy eyebrows, drooping mustache, and prominent hooked nose—was oddly familiar. “Was that you knocking out here a minute ago?”

“Yes, I was knocking on your bathroom door.”

“What for?”

“I wasn’t aware it was a bathroom.”

“What did you think it was?”

“An apartment, or a room in a boardinghouse, maybe. I rightly don’t know. I was just looking for help.” As he spoke in a croaking, measured drawl, Twain swayed slowly from side to side. It was one of his idiosyncrasies, an ingrained mannerism that being in unfamiliar and stressful circumstances always exacerbated.

Angela crossed the landing and confronted the mysterious stranger. “Hey mister, have you been drinking?”

“Well, I had a little claret with dinner,” the swaying stranger replied, “and a little cognac afterward, and then my usual tumbler of hot whiskey before bed . . . but I never did make it to bed.”

“Where did you go instead?” asked Orlando.

“Up to my billiard room and then here, wherever that is. Where am I, anyway?”

“You seriously don’t know where you are?” asked Angela.

The stranger shrugged and shoved four fingers of one hand into the pocket of his trousers. “I’m afraid not. And, quite frankly, it’s a mystery to me how I got here. All I know is that one minute I was in my own house minding my own business—well, sort of minding it—and the next minute I was in this alien place.”

“Maybe he’s an alien,” Hank quipped. “Shall we take him to our leader?”

“Zip it, Morgan,” Orlando said sternly. “This is no time for levity from you, either.”

“I don’t think you’re inebriated,” Angela told the stranger. “You seem quite rational and coherent.”

“Why thank you, young lady,” he replied with a gracious nod. “Those are indispensable attributes in my line of work.”

“Maybe he’s got Alzheimer’s,” offered Hank.

“He’s too young for that, silly,” said Aimee, elbowing Hank in the ribs.

“How about amnesia?” Hank said.

The stranger shook his head. “I don’t think I’m oblivious because I can remember exactly what happened. I just don’t know how it happened.”

“Okay,” said Orlando. “Then why don’t you tell us what happened, and maybe we can help you.”

“Well, I was sitting at my desk in the billiard room of my house in Hartford, emending the manuscript of my new book, The Adventures of Hu—”

“Would that be Hartford, Connecticut?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Orlando and Angela exchanged a skeptical look. Hartford was a considerable distance away, a substantial drive—especially in a blizzard.

“What, you don’t believe me? I live at 351 Farmington Avenue, in the community of Nook Farm, and that’s God’s honest truth,” the stranger asserted.

“Major loon,” Hank whispered to Aimee. “Probably forgot to take his meds.”

“I was trying to retrieve my pen from the floor,” the stranger continued, “when I struck my head quite badly. I think I lost consciousness . . .”

Orlando looked at Angela, who raised a suspicious eyebrow.

“And when I recovered, my manuscript had disappeared and there was a most curious contraption on my desk in its place.”

“What did this contraption look like?” said Hank, intrigued by all things technical.

“I’d say it looked like a small typewriter inside a diminutive traveling bag. But it was made of some smooth, hard material I’ve never seen before, and half of it was a glass window in which moving words—Latin words—appeared.”

“Latin?” Aimee repeated.

“Yes. Tempus something or other.”

“Really,” murmured Angela.

“I fiddled around with this dingus a bit because I’m insatiably curious about these things, you see. By and by I pressed some button and there was a terrible blinding explosion of light, and the next thing I know here I am under interrogation for blundering into your bathroom.”

“Hot damn!” Hank exclaimed. “Wait a second, guys.” He disappeared into the common room and returned a moment later with Angela’s laptop in his hands. “Did that dingus look kind of like this?” he asked.

“Why yes, very much so.”

“And does this look familiar?” asked Aimee. She approached the stranger cradling the ponderous bundle of paper that had mysteriously replaced Hank’s laptop.

“Indeed it does,” he said, fairly bouncing with delight. “That’s my manuscript.”

“What did you say your name was, mister?” asked Angela.

“I didn’t. I haven’t had half a chance to, what with all this confabulation.”

Orlando slapped his forehead in sudden recognition. “Oh my god, you guys!” he cried, pointing his finger at the stranger. “It’s . . . it’s Mark Twain.”

“Your conjecture is correct, young man. Now, would you kindly tell me where I am?”

# # #

Excerpted from pages 62-64 of Test of Time.
Copyright © 2004 by Charles Harrington Elster.
Reproduction without permission is prohibited.
All rights reserved.