It is the year 2407, when everyone wears a mask to emphasize conformity, and tranquility has been implemented via genetics, drugs, and therapy. It is also the year 1348, the time of the Black Death in Strasbourg, France, and 16-year-old Gemm has been sent back from the future to cure his nonconformist desire to create music. In the past he is known as Johannes, the son of a wealthy moneylender in a small Jewish community that finds comfort and strength in the daily rituals of Judaic faith. But as the plague sweeps the land, terrified people in city after city scapegoat the Jews as the cause of their problems. Officials find it convenient to have someone to blame, and realize that they can wipe out their debts by torturing and burning the moneylenders and their families--but they play music all the while to make the horrible scene less dismal.
Sonia Levitin, whose exceptional young adult novels are often based in Jewish culture and identity (Escape from Egypt and The Singing Mountain, among others), draws on historical fact for this story's powerful emotional impact. The vivid details of ghetto life in the Middle Ages--the Sabbath peace, the enforced humiliations of moneylenders, Johannes' joy at his betrothal to his love Margarite--make the final holocaust scene overwhelmingly real, with layers of meaning that apply to our own times. The futuristic framing device adds additional flavor, evocative of Lois Lowry's The Giver. This is a book that both fantasy fans and pragmatic young readers will devour, and one that's rich with thoughtful ideas about racism, conformity, and the lessons of history. (Ages 10 and older) --Patty Campbell