Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Escape! The story of the Great Houdini

Escape! The story of the Great Houdini

Sid Fleischman
For ages 12 and up
Greenwillow Books, 2006   ISBN: 978-0060850944

When he was young Sid Fleischman – who won a Newbery Award for his book The Whipping Boy in 1987 – loved magic and magicians. Not surprisingly, therefore, he read and learned a great deal about the incorporable Harry Houdini. Not only that but he was able to meet and become friends with Harry's widow, Bess Houdini, who became "a kind of den mother to us young West Coast magicians." This is his biography of the man who made a big impression on him and who has indeed fascinated thousands of people over the years.

Harry Houdini began life as Ehrich Weiss who was born in Budapest, Hungary on March 24, 1874. However, when he was a young man Ehrich reinvented himself adopting a new name (Harry Houdini), a new birthday (April 6th 1974), and a new birthplace (Appleton, Wisconsin). His new last name, Houdini, was Harry's way of honoring his hero, Robert-Houdin, who was a famous French magician.

At first Harry's career as a magician was a very uninspired one. He first partnered with his brother Dash, and later with his new young wife Bess. He worked hard but could never get the break he needed. Even when he began to perform his exciting escape tricks, the reception he got was, at best, luke-warm. And then Harry got to know a manager called Martin Beck. Beck suggested the Harry set aside his card tricks and his other ?ordinary' routines . Beck felt that Harry's best option was to concentrate on escape acts. He got some bookings for Harry and then he decided that Harry should go to Europe to perform.

This was an excellent move, for it did not take long for Harry to become famous across the Atlantic. The Germans loved him and Harry began to try feats that were more and more outrageous and dangerous. He jumped off a German bridge after being manacled and freed himself underwater. The German's could not get enough of him. Soon Harry was jumping of bridges in other countries as well. He would encourage local police forces to handcuff him, wrap him in chains, and lock him up. Then he would get free. He always managed to free himself no matter what people did to try to confine him. Even the prestigious police at Scotland Yard could not keep Harry Houdini restrained for long. In fact he got out of their handcuffs in a matter of minutes.

Even after he became famous Harry Houdini could not resist making up stories about himself and his achievements. He was determined to be considered the best magician in the world and would do anything to achieve this goal, including lying, attacking his competition verbally and in the courts, publicizing himself in the most outrageous manner, and generally being aggressive, pushy, and ""cocky."" His attitude won him the adoration of thousands and the enmity of many. So long as his audience loved him and considered him to be the best in his field, Harry was happy.

This account of Harry Houdini's life is highly entertaining, beautifully written, and because the author injects some of himself into it, it is also very personal. Sid Fleischman does not gloss over Harry Houdini's faults. He presents Houdini as he was and in the end one cannot help liking the egotistical escape artist anyway. He might have been a liar and a shameless self-promotor, but he also was the best in his art, and he loved his wife and family members dearly and unconditionally.

This is a marvelous biography which will intrigue and delight magic lovers of all ages.