Meggie has just finished 6th grade when her neighbors turn against her and her family and storm their house, convinced they're aliens. As it turns out, Meggie, her older brother David, her mom, and Gramps ARE aliens. They're from a dying planet and were hoping to start a new life on Earth - but xenophobia keeps rearing its ugly head.
So they travel in their "carriage" to a new planet - but it seems to be an alternate Earth. The city they arrive in, Fashion City, reminds them of 50's America, except that the people are rigidly controlled by "the Fathers." There are no books, no art, no Internet access, no bright colors, no mixing of races. Kids attend "school" by doing lessons via computer, television-watching is compulsory, and people quell any discontentment by popping pills. If this isn't bad enough, Gramps is sent on a mandatory "vacation" - which of course is much more sinister than the family realizes.
This dystopian novel is reminiscent of many others - Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Sylvia Waugh's "Ormingat" trilogy, and so on - but without quite the subtle bite or emotional resonance of those works. White is a fine writer and Meggie's family's attempts to adapt to a new and imperfect culture are fascinating enough to make this a page-turner.
And yet I didn't buy the whole "alternate Earth" scenario. In this one small city, we find alternate versions of Elvis as a young man, Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King (who led a rebellion years before and went off to live in the "Western Province"), L. Frank Baum, and lots of people from their Earth town, including Meggie's best friend Kitty. This is so implausible that it has the effect of shaking the reader out of the story - Parable Alert!
And after the family escapes to the blissfully free Western Province, Gramps and Mom offer a dissection of some of Fashion City's practices, in case we didn't get it on our own.
"What about the drabness?... Why didn't they want bright colors?"
"Color can be stimulating," Gramps the painter explains. "It can send the human imagination spinning into daydreams and fits of creativity. Good music inspires us in the same way."
"And time?" I ask. "Why did we have no weeks or months or names of days?"
"The Fathers didn't want us measuring time," Gramps says. "They encouraged us to live only for the moment...to forget we were destined to be soldiers at sixteen, factory drones every day thereafter, and corpses at sixty-five. For the same reason, they wanted us always in a stupor..."And so on, as if the reader hadn't already figured that out.
All in all, I found this a pleasant but ultimately disappointing novel, lacking in the kind of sharp insight that readers of dystopian novels expect. As a result, I'd recommend it to kids in grades 4 - 6 as a stepping stone on the way to grittier YA fare.