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*****= An all-time favorite
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***The Sterkarm Handshake

by Susan Price

Reviewed July 21, 2004.
HarperCollins, New York, 1998.  438 pages.
Available at Sembach Middle School Library.
Winner of a 1999 Guardian Fiction Prize.
1999 Carnegie Medal Finalist.

The Sterkarm Handshake is set in the near future of the 21st Century.  Time travel has been perfected, and scientists are able to travel into the 16th Century.  They set up their Time Tube into the 16th Century in an alternate universe, so as to not disrupt their own time line.

The corporation running the Time Tube plans to make a huge profit.  They can get innumerable resources—iron, petroleum, and the like, as well as organic produce of all types.  All without polluting their own world.

There’s one catch to these dreams of riches—the Sterkarms.  The Sterkarms are the clan who lives in the borderlands between England and Scotland where the Time Tube is located.  The “Sterkarm Handshake” is shorthand for an agreement that can’t be trusted, because the left-handed Sterkarms are known for shaking hands with their right hands while wielding a dagger with their left.

And such proves to be the case.  The corporation has made a deal with the Sterkarms that they will not raid their surveying parties or fight with rival families any more.  The book opens with such a raid.

The corporation is not pleased.  Windsor, the arrogant head of the corporation, goes to talk with the Sterkarms.  His interpreter is Andrea.  An anthropologist, she’s gone to live with the Sterkarms, and her ability to speak Danish makes her the only one who can understand them.  Although Andrea signed a paper not to “fraternize” with the locals, she’s taken a lover among the Sterkarms.  They think she’s going to end up marrying Per, but she does take comfort in the fact that she can leave at any time and get back to the comforts of 21st Century life.

Still, Andrea loves Per enough that, when he gets injured during a raid, she insists that he be taken into the future to save his life.  Once there, he believes he finds out the truth about the Elves of the 21st Century.  He learns from their “far-see” that they delight in killing women and children and display the bodies.  The Sterkarms decide that they had better destroy the Elves before they are destroyed.  The corporation doesn’t take them seriously because they’re only rustic yokels.

The Sterkarm Handshake is brilliantly plotted, cleverly written, and thought-provoking.  However, I didn’t exactly enjoy reading it.  I was surprised that it’s described as a book for young adults, since all the characters are adults, except maybe Per, who acts like an adult anyway.  It’s got some horrible violence.  Even Andrea, the most sympathetic character, never planned to stay with Per.  Wasn’t she, in a way, exploiting his heart, just as the corporation was planning to exploit his land?  Still, it’s a good novel for teens who are ready to grapple with ambiguities and don’t require a happy ending.

Copyright © 2004 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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