Escape! The Sto­ry of the Great Houdini

Sid Fleis­chman
  • Review
By – April 2, 2012

Har­ry Houdini’s show­man­ship made him a stand­out among magi­cians. Author Sid Fleis­chman uses the same tech­nique to stand out in the crowd­ed field of Hou­di­ni biogra­phies. Escape! cap­tures read­ers with its flam­boy­ant vocab­u­lary, humor, insid­er under­stand­ing, won­der­ful pho­tographs with excel­lent cap­tions and a clear­ly stat­ed theme which shapes the details of an excit­ing life. Fleis­chman orga­nizes this rags-to-rich­es tale around Houdini’s shame­less van­i­ty that sup­port­ed his mega­phone self-pro­mo­tion” of his self-made leg­end: shar­ing that Hou­di­ni doc­tored facts and pho­tographs. Fleis­chman ana­lyzes Houdini’s fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships, eval­u­ates his career and last­ing fame, and explains them to young­sters as part human flaw, part the need to escape anti-Semi­tism, and part the dri­ve to trump all com­peti­tors and fakes. The self-taught Hou­di­ni nev­er had a mag­ic les­son. Loy­al­ty to fel­low magi­cians keeps author-magi­cian Fleis­chman from reveal­ing Houdini’s meth­ods, although his bib­li­og­ra­phy includes books that tell all. 

Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish immi­grant Ehrich Weiss, search­ing for a way to finan­cial­ly aid his poor fam­i­ly, finds vaude­ville and his stage name, The Great Hou­di­ni. Iron­i­cal­ly, Hou­di­ni lat­er unmasks his youth­ful idol and name inspi­ra­tion, Robert- Houdin. This biog­ra­phy dra­mat­i­cal­ly recounts what Hou­di­ni got out of: hand­cuffs, milk cans, straight jack­ets, jail cells, frozen rivers and coffins. It also spot­lights what he got into: air­planes and first-flight records; enter­tain­ing troops dur­ing World War I; sup­port­ing the sons of rab­bis, who like him­self, per­formed on the stage; movies; the Ency­clopae­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca; the Library of Con­gress and a cru­sade bash­ing pho­ny spiritualists. 

Fleishman’s rich, inti­mate account is pos­si­ble from two spe­cial boosts to nor­mal bio­graph­i­cal research. He had access to mate­r­i­al pub­lished pri­vate­ly for magi­cians and he knew Houdini’s wid­ow, Bess, who gave him infor­ma­tion and pho­tographs. From the clever table of con­tents to the sad post­mortem, this book over­flows with fun facts deliv­ered by out of the ordi­nary col­or­ful lan­guage prov­ing read­ing can be mag­ic. A treat for read­ers age 9 – adult.

Ellen G. Cole, a retired librar­i­an of the Levine Library of Tem­ple Isa­iah in Los Ange­les, is a past judge of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Awards and a past chair­per­son of that com­mit­tee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excel­lence in Jew­ish Children’s Lit­er­a­ture. Ellen is the recip­i­ent of two major awards for con­tri­bu­tion to Juda­ic Librar­i­an­ship, the Fan­ny Gold­stein Mer­it Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroed­er Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is on the board of AJLSC.

Discussion Questions