Back in time to WWII: a review of The Mine by John Heldt

The Mine is a novel by first-time novelist John Heldt.  It’s a time-travel story in the vein of Back to the Future – only this time the traveler lives in 2000 and goes back 60 years to 1941, just before Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War 2.

Joel Smith is graduating from college in Seattle when he takes a senior year trip with his buddy Adam across Montana.  Joel is the guy who has everything – he’s confident, outgoing, good-looking, and expects he’ll be successful at whatever he does.  When he drives past an abandoned mine, the geologist in him decides to explore.  It’s a ridiculous idea – climbing into a dark abandoned mine can only be disastrous, and his friend insists on waiting outside.  Joel goes into the mine, finds a strange glowing rock, hits his head, and awakens in 1941.

At first, Joel’s transition into 1941 is devastating.  He has no money, strange clothes, and no idea what to do or how to get home.  He ends up riding rail cars, hungry and homeless, until he ends up back where he started, in Seattle.

His life turns around when he helps a guy in an alley who’s being beaten by two thugs.  Tom is grateful for his help and brings him back home, where he’s taken in by the benevolent Carter family.

Where Marty McFly met his parents in the 50s, Joel meets his grandmother, Ginny, a strong independent young woman who is compared by Heldt to Katherine Hepburn.  Just as in Back to the Future, Joel becomes immediately conscious that everything he influences in the past could have disastrous consequences.  Ginny is in a serious relationship with Tom – only Ginny is his grandmother but Tom is not his grandfather, so Joel’s very existence depends on this relationship not working out.

Heldt borrows in concept from Back to the Future but acknowledges that borrowing in a few tongue-in-cheek references.  He also puts a pretty unique spin on the story.  World War II is looming and Joel is the only one who knows that Pearl Harbor is coming.  He also knows things he shouldn’t about who goes off to war and dies in battle, but he can do nothing about it.  As he integrates himself into 1940’s life (which I thought seemed a bit too easy) he thinks about whether he’ll enlist or not – after all, he’s not on any of the Selective Service rolls since he doesn’t legally exist yet.

As a story of a young, arrogant guy who has to grow up fast and deal with serious things, The Mine is a good one.  It’s also a thoughtful portrayal of a time we think of as simpler and more innocent. I love historical fiction and this book takes you to a really interesting point in U.S. history.

There’s a love story too, which I found less successful, because I struggled with Heldt’s portrayal of Grace as this gorgeous, amazing, saintlike creature.  The story works – Grace is engaged to marry a soldier, but she really isn’t ready to be engaged.  Her decision becomes more complicated when she and Joel begin to fall for each other.

What I had a problem with is the way Heldt writes about women, which I found somewhat superficial.  His female characters are pretty one-note: Ginny is strong and independent, Linda is a flirt, Katie is smart, and Grace is angelic (note the heavy-handed name).  Of course Joel is only 20 but there’s a real immaturity in the way he talks about these women – they are women before they are people.  More annoying is the way Heldt constantly describes how handsome Joel is.  Even as he struggles in the 40’s, Joel is still a bit too perfect; it’s like Heldt has created this fantasy version of himself.  Joel is chiseled, great in a fight, the perfect salesman, all the women want him, etc.  Heldt would have done better to take a little more from Marty McFly in this regard – Michael J. Fox was endearing because he’s nervous and screws up a lot (and gets hit by a car) not because he’s some superstud.

Still, Heldt gives us an entertaining story that poses some real moral dilemmas for Joel that can’t be easily resolved, and in this way we really get to see Joel grow as a character.

Estella’s Revenge recently posed an interesting question about writing versus story, and which matters more.  This book is an interesting example to think about.  While it’s usually pretty tough to separate writing from story, The Mine is a book with a great story and occasionally weak character development.  But as a first novel, I think we can look forward to more good reads in Heldt’s future.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book to review but no compensation.  The author had no input into the content of this review. 

  4 comments for “Back in time to WWII: a review of The Mine by John Heldt

  1. June 13, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    First of all, how was I not already following you on Goodreads? Second, I just got a review request for this book and I normally turn those down BUT I’m considering checking this one out based on your review. Especially given your Back to the Future references

    • September 6, 2012 at 5:05 pm

      OK so admittedly I skimmed your review because I didn’t want any spoilers (even small ones) if I read it and now that I read this more closely I have all of the same complaints you have and I’m only 1/2 way through. C’est la vie.

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