There’s a reason that time travel romances are popular, and it isn’t just the success of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (both the books and the television series). The idea of traveling to a different time is, in itself, a bit romantic, and lovers crossed by time and space pluck the heartstrings of hopeless romantics. Kosoko Jackson’s newly released Yesterday Is History hits all the right notes for the genre by both drawing on its predecessors and striking out in a new direction, giving queer readers—especially queer Black men—representation in a genre that’s normally more female-focused.
Andre Cobb is a young Black man set to be the salutatorian of his class at an elite high school—until cancer ruins all his carefully laid plans. Dre’s cancer requires a liver transplant and, as the book opens, the operation has gone successfully. His body has accepted the liver, and it’s possible he could get things back on track with his life, despite the school administration giving him as many hoops to jump through as they can throw his way. Faced with summer school in order to graduate on time (but losing his salutatorian status), or having to spend another year in high school, Dre desperately wishes he “could just go back in time and do it all over again. Go back, like, three years, tell my parents to take me to the doctor, find the cancer when it’s stage 0, and stop all of this from happening.”
And then, he jumps back in time. Not three years, but to 1969, where he meets a young man named Michael who takes Dre’s random appearance in stride. Michael fascinates Dre, despite his terror at what’s actually going on. When he jumps back to the present, he half believes he’s made up the whole thing, that he’s suffering some sort of side-effect from the surgery. It’s true, but not in the way he thinks. There are no hallucinations. But the liver he received belonged to a time traveling teenager—a teen whose family now wants to bring Andre into their secret world. The wealthy white family invites him over to explain things (in a scene that may intentionally evoke Jordan Peele’s Get Out). While the McIntyres do occasionally give off that think-they’re-woke-but-aren’t-quite vibe, the family is well-intentioned, and Blake, younger brother of Dre’s liver donor, becomes Dre’s time travel teacher.
From that set up, Dre hurtles back and forth, primarily between the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, deepening his connection with Michael while also developing a tenuous friendship with Blake (who, in the narrative, feels almost as though he’s from a world more foreign to Dre than Michael is). Jackson’s sense of 1969 and the following years is solid and cinematic, and while he’s spare with details, the ones he introduces give such a rich sense of history to the time and place that it’s like sinking into that moment. Dre’s sense of what it is to be a young gay man in 2021 offers a contrast to what it was like to be a young gay man in the momentum of the Stonewall Riots. While Dre is Black and Michael is white, Dre can still see ways in which his position as a contemporary gay man has greater privilege, based on the progress activists made in the forty year span between Michael’s time and his own.
Because of Dre’s comfort with his sexual identity, the drama of the story doesn’t need to revolve around any sort of that. When Blake asks Dre out on a date, it feels like a completely natural growth of their friendship—any awkwardness comes from Dre’s romance with his historical tether. Blake himself has greater concerns over the idea of having a boyfriend, due to his own family relationships, and it’s really enjoyable as a reader to have the point-of-view protagonist not struggle with that side of his identity, and to have his sexuality be accepted by his family with no drama. (Whether they accept his choice of career path is the greater struggle, and one with which many YA readers will be sure to identify.)
Jackson’s presentation of time travel is also very naturally done, so that the idea of it feels quite normalized. He never delves into the science behind it, or tries to explain the physics (aside from setting the rules to avoid the creation of paradoxes—something that becomes increasingly important as the novel progresses). The novel is better for it, accepting that time travel is something that happens to some people—a shrinking population, in fact, which is part of the reason the McIntyres sought to bring Dre into their family. The idea of time travel as a genetic quirk seems to draw on Audrey Niffeneger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which Dre even references in the book: “You mean the greatest movie of all time? Yes.”
While there are moments where some of the characters’ relationship growth seems to happen in time gaps (details about Dre’s mother’s first impression of Mrs. McIntyre are revealed after the fact, for example, and Blake and Dre’s friendship clearly progresses between scenes in ways that aren’t obvious until they later come into the narrative), that feels appropriate to a time travel novel. Jackson never cuts corners when it comes to emotional anguish, either, and despite the eventual feel-good conclusion, the latter half of the novel is full of tear-jerking conversations as Dre tries to fix mistakes—his own and others. The ethical questions of time travel intervention (or choosing not to intervene) are explored in ways that are personal rather than big picture, and that deepens the emotional impact.
Yesterday Is History joins other excellent time travel romances like Outlander, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Lora Innes’s similarly-YA aimed comic The Dreamer, in exploring those themes—and also in bringing to life characters that tug on the heart strings. Dre’s adventures are sure to stick with readers for a long time after reading… Just be sure that you grab some tissues before you get started.
Yesterday is History is now available to buy wherever books are sold.