Armed with nothing more than some basic instructions on how to use a pay phone and what roads to follow, and a modern day outfit (which looks completely strange to her), Jessie Keyser is snuck out of her 1840-style historical preserve with one single goal: get help for the sick and dying children of her village.
But nothing can prepare her for the shock of the modern world. Lacking the basic knowledge of what anything is, or is called, or how it's used, or how to fit in, or act around others, Jessie soon finds herself in a variety of situations she is completely unprepared for. She stares at the faucet when seeing someone wash their hands, mesmerized by the running water that can be turned on or off at will. She jumps with shock at the sound of a waterfall, which turns out to be a toilet flushing. An early attempt to use a pay phone results in a pre-recorded message that Jessie mistakes for a live person and attempts to talk to, giving her the false impression that people are very rude on the phone.
The social situations are equally foreign, and Jessie finds herself very intimidated. Shortly after she escapes Clifton, a group of tourists arrive, and Jessie finds herself yelled at by someone who mistakens her for a wayward member of a tourist group. She later has an encounter with a friendly environmentalist, but rejects his offer to go into his house to use his phone. Her suspicion and fear does however protect her from genuine threats, such as a group of drunken thugs who try to lure her into their car.
Seeing the near-present through the eyes of a kid from 1840 is entertaining. Jessie wonders if slavery ended, and is impressed with the intelligence of a "Negro" she meets. She gives herself names for the objects that she doesn't understand, such as "miniature sun" for a lightbulb. She is impressed by the concept of music coming out of seemingly nowhere (i.e. radio), even if she has a low opinion about modern musical styles.
But despite some bits of humor, this Fish Out of Temporal Water
story isn't a comedy. Mostly, the focus is on Jessie's fear and how out-of-place and terrified she is in a confusing, alien and frequently hostile environment, made worse by the fact that she's being hunted. It's refreshing to see the concept of someone from the past dragged into the future being handled intelligently and seriously.