First-time author Andrew Vanderwal knows what the pre-teen set wants in their historical fiction: danger, action, camaraderie, and enough period detail to satisfy any future Jeopardy contestant’s appetite for trivia. The Battle for Duncragglin is laden with those elements, along with a time-travel framing story and the near-obligatory cast of real historical figures, in this case fronted by William Wallace, the 13th-century Scotsman who led a rebellion against his country’s British overlords.
The young protagonist is 12-year-old Alex Macpherson, a lonely Canadian orphan who is sent to his “dreaded” Aunt Fiona’s house in a remote Scottish village for the summer by his slightly less dreadful Uncle Larry. Alex has been at the mercy of his resentful relatives since his parents mysteriously disappeared in Scotland years earlier, his only family memento a collection of his father’s comic books. Luckily for Alex, Aunt Fiona falls ill and leaves him in the care of the McRaes, a kindly farming family whose matron also disappeared near the seaside caves where Alex’s parents were last seen.
Alex soon falls into the rhythms of farm life with the three McRae children, but a day trip to the ruins of Duncragglin castle and its legendary caves sets the children on a time-travelling adventure back to the early days of the Scottish rebellion, where William Wallace is raising an army.
Vanderwal wisely tempers the high drama with Alex’s yearning for adventure and friendship, all without sacrificing suspense or overdoing the pathos. A little more backstory would have made Alex an even more engaging protagonist, but with the murderous Brits at the gate and a people’s future on the line, Vanderwal has far meatier treats to feed his readers.