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.