Robert Westall Natalie Babbitt - Essay

Natalie Babbitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are always problems with time travels which involve real histories, and The Devil on the Road does not escape them, though Westall handles the transitions with great subtlety and skill. But the writing is so charged and vigorous, the timing of the plot so carefully measured, that the customary difficulties are minimized.

John Webster seems very real indeed, and likable; and even better, there is a young cat, deeply involved in the story and central to it, who is surely one of the best and most charmingly drawn cats I've ever encountered in a book. Her presence in the story does for it what real cats can do for real life—she is all animal but still profoundly enigmatic, a creature of many wisdoms, a link between the known and the unknown. As such she epitomizes the story itself in all of its convolutions. The author is to be congratulated on a superb characterization here.

Without the cat and John Webster's hard-edged, vivid voice, The Devil on the Road would be just one more in terms of suspension of disbelief. And for this reader, at any rate, the book's final section, in which a group of characters from the past cross back into the present with John, allows disbelief to drop down again with a clunk. For me, the shape of the novel is damaged hereby, and the fragility of the premise fatally exposed.

But American teenagers ought to enjoy this story very much and identify easily with John in spite of his British idioms. He is blessedly three-dimensional and therefore more than welcome in a field where two-legged stools have been letting everybody down long enough. (p. 21)

Natalie Babbitt, "All Aboard the Broomstick!" in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), November 11, 1979, pp. 21-2.∗