The new eco-warrior’s muse

“When you’re in a dire situation, that is when the greatest of human nature comes out” — Charlotte Mendel. Photo: Bruce Murray

Charlotte Mendel puts her prodigious talent to work fighting global warming. With her new book, she wants the next generation to know they “can do it” one step at a time 

Halifax author Charlotte Mendel’s latest book is about a boy who travels into the past to save the world from climate change, and, yes, she would like to talk about it. 

After all, Reversing Time: One Boy’s Quest to Change History (Guernica Editions, Montreal, 2021) is her third novel and her first for a young adult reader. But that can wait. First, we must play “the game.” 

Sitting at her computer in her home in Enfield, N.S., she shares her screen on the video link. 

“So, you are no longer Alec Bruce,” she says. “You are Climate Hawk.” 

“Uh-huh, got it … Climate Hawk,” I say. 

“So, Climate Hawk, you are in the interactive, online World Climate Simulation game and global warming is heading towards 3.6 C. Your goal is to get it down to two or, even better, 1.5. Can you do it?” 

She moves her cursor to point out a series of boxes containing options for energy efficiency in generation, transportation, and agriculture — the gamut of human activity. What the hell? I think, before choosing to tax coal into oblivion. 

“Whoa,” she says. “Now that’s good. You just brought the planet’s mean temperature down by half a degree. How do you feel?” 

I shrug. But I feel like a kid who just learned how to ride a bike. 

“Good,” she smiles, switching screens to chat. “Essentially, it’s the same as the book,” in which the teenage protagonist discovers he isn’t powerless to change the world. 

In fact, she came across the game (the product of an American university project) while she worked on the book. “In Reversing Time, I wanted to aim at young people where, I think, there is a real sense of despair,” she says. “Too often, we are using the wrong language with them.” 

Like her book, the game strives to use effective language. “When you’re in a dire situation, that is when the greatest of human nature comes out,” she says. “I want people to see that this is actually an exciting time. We need to galvanize everyone to focus on what they can actually do.” 

Book or game, “you can do it” is the message Mendel, who grew up in Mahone Bay and has spent a good deal of time travelling and working abroad, now deploys nearly every waking moment broadcasting to the rest of the world. She’s not a scientist. But she can talk. And she can write. 

“No other challenge is more important, more urgent, than climate change,” she says. “(That’s) what I want people to remember me by in the short time that I might be remembered.” 

Not that being forgotten seems likely for Mendel, who’s also the author of Turn Us Again (Roseway/Fernwood, 2013), which won the H.R. Percy prize, the Beacon Award for Social Justice, and the Atlantic Book Award in the Margaret and John Savage First Book category. Her second novel, A Hero (Inanna Publications, 2015) was shortlisted for the 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and was a finalist in the 2016 International Book Awards in the General Fiction category. 

“Charlotte preaches in her writing what she practises in her life, and that makes her unique,” says Michael Mirolla, Guernica’s publisher and editor-in-chief. “She combines impulsiveness and hyperactivity with the courage to take chances and a determination to get things done in areas where she’s passionate. She puts into her writing the same passion she uses to advocate for her beliefs … (That) translates into imaginative leaps.”

In Reversing Time, the bullied high-school student Simon learns from his mother that he is a member of a secret tribe of time travellers. He is further shocked to discover they expect him to help halt humanity’s doomed course towards self-extinction.

A recent review by the Canadian Review of Materials, which focuses on literature for young adults, calls it “a complicated tale, filled with information about what we are doing to the planet and glimpses of a possible future, told mainly from the point of view of a conflicted teenager.”

Adds Mirolla: “The book tackles what is probably the most dangerous crisis humanity has ever faced, while at the same time detailing the life of a struggling teenager as seen through his eyes. In her writing … (she) transforms events in her life so that they become universal.”

With an overall Goodreads rating of 4/5, many bibliophiles seem to agree. 

“Travelling only along one’s own timeline is a nice twist,” writes one. “Focusing on the environment and the survival of humankind was another twist. I have already sent this book around the pre-teen circuit in my neighbourhood.”

Says another: “The set pieces are well rendered and the characters believable. Mendel handles tension with dexterity and the book is expertly paced. The interactions, particularly between the main protagonist and his parents, are sensitively and dexterously handled. A great read and highly recommended.”

Waslyna Bendel, a Grade 12 student at East Hants Rural High School, is also a fan. 

“What intrigues me about Reversing Time is the message it is trying to get across, and how intensely it makes you think about your own impact on the earth,” she tells Unravel. “This is a book that’s worth publishing because it gives you a glimpse into our future if we don’t do something about climate change.”

“You are in the interactive, online World Climate Simulation game and global warming is heading towards 3.6 C. Your goal is to get it down to two or, even better, 1.5. Can you do it?” — Charlotte Mendel. Photo: Bruce Murray

She adds that the book has a way of reaching readers. “She is able to drive her point home and ask the uncomfortable questions most people would just bypass,” Bendel says. “She is also able to make you relate to, and butt heads with, the main character.”

As for the subtextual meta message, the whole you-can-do-it thing? “It has made me think about my impact on the planet, and the role I play in climate change,” Bendel says. “It has made me think and worry about our future. What will our planet look like in the next 10, 20 years? What can I do differently and what could others do differently to help?”

Mendel doesn’t recall just when the climate emergency became so personal to her. She doesn’t seem especially interested in dwelling on the details that usually fill out a bio: influences, teachers, siblings, parents … turning points.

When she was a younger woman, she sojourned in Israel to study at Tel Aviv University. Later, she spent three years travelling the world, working in France, the U.K., Turkey, Israel, and India. Later still, she and her husband and two children began keeping as many as 20 chickens, four goats, three sheep, two cats, and thousands of bees at their spread in suburban Halifax. 

“I had a little hobby farm and some goats, and I used to walk down the street and people would really enjoy it,” she says, almost offhandedly. “I used to give milk and cheese to the neighbours, and eggs from the chickens and honey from the bees.”

On the other hand, Mendel clearly recounts how she felt when the global warming “light bulb went on” for her about six years ago. 

“I was very defensive,” she laughs. “I was talking with someone whom I’d admired very much, and they pointed out something that I was doing or not doing. I reacted and they said, ‘I’m sorry but I’m sick of hearing that.’ So I went away and just thought, ‘You know, that was true what they said.’ I started to think a lot about what the point is of our lives, anyway.”

That’s clearly the question that matters most to her now: What constitutes a truly “good” life in these years of living precariously? 

Mirolla has known Mendel for about a decade. “I’ve had the opportunity to visit her … and watch her care for her animals and listen to her talk passionately about her ideas on the environment,” he says. “Her unique voice comes from that personal dedication to the principles of conservation and trying to live a life that pays attention to the environment and reducing our carbon footprint, he says.

Mendel believes a lot of people think the corporations want us to address global warming even though they are responsible. “It’s all of us, all of us who are doing it,” she says. “And so, yes absolutely, if you have time, lobby the corporations, write the petitions, complain to the government, and vote strategically. But we, individually, still have to do it.” 

On this score, she doesn’t think Halifax is doing a bad job. This coastal city stands to lose as much and perhaps more than many communities when the mercury rises. She wishes for it what she wishes for everyone, everywhere on this benighted Earth: enlightenment. 

“I think there’s a lot going on here,” she says. “There are a lot of people who are concerned. I think that there’s sometimes a disconnect, but we can attend climate rallies and we can (advocate) with MPs.”

For her part, she plans to keep writing. She has another book in the hopper. And, course, there’s the World Climate Simulation game, created by the Climate Interactive lobby group. She says she’s already run the program, with great success, at 75 schools in England. Now, she hopes to bring it into Nova Scotia classrooms. 

“I’ve gone to the Department of Education and had a meeting with them about the World Climate Simulation,” she says. “I think they’re going to attend one of the sessions. I think they are really interested in it.”

Book or game; chicken or egg. 

“I guess I really wanted to use the game as a sort of segue for Reversing Time, because I’m not very good at publication (promotions). That’s been the idea. And I’ve made lots of connections with schools. Really, the book and the simulation are doing the same thing. They’re both saying: This is the situation.”

Fair enough. But right now, the situation is: I have a choice. Our game is still afoot. Is my next move to electrify all major transportation across the planet?

“Let’s go for it,” I say. 

“Wow, that’s fantastic,” she says. “That’s a two-degree cut right there.”

I lean back in my ergonomically perfect chair that came to me on a container ship and smile to myself. 

It’s just a game. It’s only fiction. But it feels real. 

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