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*Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini* by Sid Fleischman - tweens/young readers book review


Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini
by Sid Fleischman
Ages 9-12 224 pages Greenwillow August 2006 Hardcover    

Magic entertains, surprises, and tricks. And for some, it fascinates. Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss. Young Ehrich Weiss became fascinated with the magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin - so much so that Ehrich added an “i” to Houdin and made it his own. (He was under the impression Houdini, in French, meant, “like Houdin”). For author Sid Fleischman (a Newbery Medalist), the fascination with magic came when reading Harry Houdini’s biography. This developed into traveling with magic shows and, later, this book - Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini.

Fleischman's biography reveals the life and identity Harry Houdini created for himself. His life was hard at times; he left home at twelve. Over the ensuing tough years, people were out there copying his acts and trying to expose his secrets. Then the troubles in his life changed: he met Bess. He said, “…she has been my luck. I never had any before I met her, and it has been with me ever since.” Whether dangling upside down, being submerged underwater, locked in a wooden box, or curled up inside a custom-designed milk jug, he did entertain crowds worldwide as a magician and escape artist.

Some of the tricks Fleischman documents are his first escape, called the Metamorphosis; the Indian Needle Trick; his milkcan escape; the Chinese Water Torture trick; walking through a brick wall; and making an elephant vanish. Harry did venture into other areas of interest. He wrote books (with the help of a ghost writer) and launched a magazine called Conjurer’s Monthly Magazine. He became an actor, too, appearing in many productions performing escapes, just as he perfected in his stage shows. In addition, he made the history books when he flew the first sustained flight in Australia in 1910. Buried today in Queens while Bess is interred in New England, the last days of his life are documented. Also inside are the secret words Houdini told Bess, which were to let her know it was Harry himself who was contacting her from the dead.

The black and white pictures included in the book make statements of their own. What emerges is a man who loved to be in the spotlight, astonishing crowds and causing sensations. Posters show him tied up in a number of ways, by a variety of restraints, doing many stunts. The photographs take us back to when he was a young boy only a few feet tall; beside this picture is a photo of his father, the rabbi. The book ends with a photograph of Harry’s pajama shirt pocket, detailed with the letters HH. Harry’s brother Dash saved this pocket after Harry’s death (it has since been auctioned off).

Bess, his wife, is shown in her young newlywed years and in her later years, after Harry had already died. One such photo takes place on a Halloween night at a séance, the last time Bess tried to contact Harry.

This book is a thoughtful tribute to Harry Houdini. The bibliography in the book will satisfy those wishing to know more details and magic secrets about Harry Houdini, and the phenomenon of magic.

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  Tanya Boudreau/2006 for curled up with a good kid's book  

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