The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn, 1981.
Rose Larkin is an orphan, living with her grandmother, a stern businesswoman. Her grandmother travels frequently on business, so from the time Rose came to her when she was three years old, she just took Rose with her wherever she traveled, tutoring her in school subjects in the evening after work. Rose’s early life is largely one of travel to strange places and isolation. When her grandmother is working, Rose is pretty much left to her own devices, often either reading alone in their hotel rooms or exploring strange cities by herself. Not going to school, she has no friends her own age and doesn’t really know how to behave around other children or live as part of a normal family.
When her grandmother dies suddenly of a heart attack in Paris when Rose is twelve years old, her remaining relatives have to decide what to do with her. She temporarily stays with aunts who are into fashion and high living before goes to live with another aunt and uncle and their boys on an old farm. Aunt Nan (Rose’s father’s sister) and her husband are better suited to caring for Rose and can give her a more settled family life, but Rose’s other relatives don’t seem to think much of Aunt Nan, who is an author of children’s books. Rose has heard that Aunt Nan has no sense and that the family has just moved to a shabby little farm house in Canada. Rose is prepared not to be happy there, on a dumpy little farm, miles from anywhere, with a bunch of strange people.
Her new life gets off to a bad start when there is no one to meet her at the house when she arrives. As she waits for her aunt and uncle to return, a strange old woman appears who seems to know her. She calls herself Mrs. Morrisay and acts like she belongs to the house. But, when Rose’s relatives arrive home, Mrs. Morrisay suddenly disappears, and none of them seem to know anything about her. Later, Rose sees a girl making a bed upstairs, but her relatives just laugh when Rose asks them about the maid, which is who Rose thought the girl was. There is no maid in this house, and Rose is the only girl. To Rose’s annoyance, her relatives think she imagined the whole thing.
Actually, life in her aunt and uncle’s house in the country isn’t as bad as her other aunt has lead her to believe, but becoming part of their household isn’t easy because Rose is used to a very different kind of life. The house is definitely old and in bad need of repair, and her relatives are noisy and disorganized, at least more so than Rose is accustomed to. Rose isn’t used to the chaotic life of a family with a lot of children, and Aunt Nan has another on the way. Also, tourists who are fans of Aunt Nan’s books sometimes stop by the house, and Rose doesn’t like dealing with their scrutiny and questions. Sam, one of the older boys in the family, seems to resent Rose’s presence in the house, and Rose overhears him saying a lot of bad things about her to her aunt, calling her snobby and criticizing her appearance. Rose takes his attitude as further evidence that she doesn’t really belong in their house and that she’ll never fit in. If they think badly of her, why should she think any better of them?
Rose also becomes increasingly aware that there is something not quite normal about her relatives’ house, especially the old root cellar, and the people she saw on her first day in the house are part of it. Sam thought that he might have seen a ghost in the house one day, an old woman, and Rose recognizes his description as that of the Mrs. Morrisay she saw on her first day there. She sees Mrs. Morrisay in her bedroom later, suddenly walking through a wall. Rose thinks Mrs. Morrisay is a ghost, but Mrs. Morrisay tells her that she’s not dead, just “shifting” through time and that she wants Rose to stay in the house and help restore it to its former glory. Rose doesn’t know why or how she can possibly help Mrs. Morrisay.
Rose learns that her aunt’s house was once an old farm house that belonged to the Morrisay family, and there is still an old root cellar on the property, a relic from the time when people had to store certain kinds of food underground to keep them cool and prevent them from spoiling. One day, Rose goes down into the root cellar and meets a mysterious girl dressed in old-fashioned clothes, the same girl she saw earlier, making beds. Although Rose and the other girl don’t realize it immediately, Rose has gone back in time. The girl was someone who lived on the farm in the past, during the 1800s.
Rose and the girl in the past, Susan Anderson, become friends, and Rose is grateful for another girl to talk to. Susan is an orphan herself, living with the Morrisay family as a servant girl. She and Will Morrisay, old Mrs. Morrisay’s son, are friends, and both of them are sympathetic to Rose when she tells them about her new life with her relatives and the problems she has. Rose finds herself wishing that she could stay in the past with them forever. However, once they realize that Rose is traveling through time when she goes in the root cellar, they also discover that it isn’t reliable about exactly when Rose will reappear in the past. Although at first there are only days between Rose’s visits from her perspective, months or years pass in her friends’ lives between her visits. They eventually manage to solve this problem through a friendship pact where they exchange favorite objects. It’s at a good time, too, because soon Rose’s friends need her help as much as Rose needs them.
After a terrible fight with her relatives in which her aunt slips and falls and Rose worries that her aunt and the baby might die, Rose runs away to the root cellar and goes to see her friends, discovering that in their time, Will has gone away to fight in the American Civil War alongside his favorite cousin and has not returned. It’s been awhile since Susan has heard from him, and she fears the worst. Rose suggests that they go to look for Will at his last known location, but it’s a difficult, perilous journey. At first, they’re not sure whether they’ll find Will alive or not.
When they finally find Will, he is a changed man from the war, and Rose and Susan have to help him to remember who he really is and where he really belongs. In helping Will to remember where he comes from, his life before the war, and how much Susan needs him, Rose comes to realize some important things about herself and where she really belongs.
As difficult as the choice is, Rose realizes that she must return to her own time, face the consequences of her earlier actions, and do what she can to become a real member of her new family. After she returns home and the root cellar is destroyed in a storm, it seems as though she might never see her friends from the past again, but friendship can transcend many boundaries, including time.
I didn’t realize this the first time I read the book, but it’s actually part of a loose trilogy. I say loose because none of the main characters from each story appear in the others (except, perhaps, for one who is in both the second and third books), which also take place in different time periods. What binds the stories together is the location where the stories take place and also some distant family relations, particularly focusing on the Anderson and Morrisay families.
It is something of a spoiler, but it seems that the time travel in this story may not be so much a matter of the house being special or magical, but because Susan is special. It is revealed in one of the other books, Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, that her grandmother was psychic. Will and Susan briefly refer to her grandmother and her stories about ghosts when talking to Rose. Susan seems to have little control, especially later in life, over her ability to shift through time, but it may be her special attachment to the Morrisay house and her need for Rose’s friendship and help that makes Rose’s time travel possible. It’s never explicitly stated that Susan inherited her abilities from her grandmother, but I think that it is implied during the course of the books.