Fuse #8

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Review of the Day: Escape - The Story of the Great Houdini

Oh me, oh my, another Houdini biography? A person could be forgiven for giving a groan at hearing that yet another such beast was being churned out of the publishing houses. Even the library with the poorest stock of literary biographies for children will find that it has at least one moth-eaten old bio of that greatest of self-promoters. So it was with great trepidation that I examined Sid Fleischman’s newest contribution to the world of non-fiction. Admittedly, the man had his credentials in order. Not only can he boast to have met and conversed often with Houdini’s wife, Bess, but he has actually been a magician himself. How many other biographers of the mysterious man can say as much? And then reading through “Escape!” I found the book to be an entirely enjoyable lark. Relying a great deal on Fleischman’s trademark easy-going voice and writing style, the book sets out to debunk as many Houdini myths as it possibly can while simultaneously reestablishing its subject to be the amazing genius he truly was. Fleischman doesn’t flinch from the less enjoyable aspects of Houdini’s life, but neither does he degrade the man who could arguably have been called America’s greatest entertainer.

Born Erich Weiss in Hungary in 1874, Houdini's family moved from Budapest to the United States when he was four. Times were tough, even in Appleton, Wisconsin where the family took up residence. At 12, Erich ran away from home, later rejoining the family in New York City. He came into the world of magic slowly, but when he concentrated on the subject he applied himself fully. Fleischman’s book shows how Houdini was both a great magician and a great self-promoter. His ego seemingly knew no bounds, and the author is even able to touch on some of the weirder aspects of Houdini’s life (his obsession with own mother, for example) without making the man out to be a freak. By the end of the book, myths have been destroyed but the legend is as strong and proud as ever. Even the Mastery of Mystery himself would be pleased.

Of course, Fleischman has a hard time keeping his fictionalizing and speculation in check. Though there’s only two of them, the author sometimes will say something along the lines of, “one can easily imagine the sort of conversation that followed”. Then he’ll write down dialogue that probably never happened, possibly because his yearning to write speech down is so deeply ingrained in his authorial make-up. The passage where Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first meet is especially painful in this respect. Anytime a biographer starts using sentences that ends with, “said The Great Houdini, in all likelihood”, it’s treading on very very thin ice. Detroit River thin, if you get my drift.

Where Fleischman excels is in producing peculiar artifacts that give Houdini far more depth than an average children’s biography might lend him. At one point we see a handbill from when Houdini visited the Klan Auditorium in Texas. He points out that the Ku Klux Klan was hardly fond of Jews and Houdini probably would have known that. So why did he go? We will undoubtedly never know. Some of the photographs in this book were given to Fleischman, personally, by Bess Houdini herself. It’s a pity that he doesn’t pad them out a little more, but what there is comes across as satisfying.

There were plenty of myths to debunk in this puppy. There’s the old “Houdini could pick up needles with his eyelids” story, that no one really takes seriously. There’s the myth that his first act of breaking out of jail came when he and some circus performers were locked up back in his early days. Also not true. Innocent that I am, I had always heard two of the Houdini myths spoken like they were truth incarnate. The first story always made it clear that Houdini’s toes were as capable as his hands. He could, according to everyone, untie ropes with them. Fleischman is careful to point out that this just ain’t the case. Sorry folks. He was a man, not a monkey. The other myth (also rather well known) claimed that Houdini was once dropped in the Detroit River when it was covered in ice. He got loose of his bonds without difficulty but couldn’t find the hole in the ice and had to breathe from the air bubbles caught just below the surface. Apparently this story is pure myth as well. Historians have determined that the Detroit River was not iced over in the least on the day that Houdini always claimed this amazing story occurred. But whatta scoop!

With these common misperceptions of the great man in mind, I set about examining other Houdini biographies for children in comparison. The best known and best written of these is Tom Lalicki’s, “Spellbinder: The Life of Harry Houdini”. Lalicki trumps Fleischman when it comes to photographs. Though Sid may win when it comes to exclusive never-before-seen shots of Houdini, Lalicki gives you more bang for your buck photo-wise. However, when it comes to his written style, Lalicki is almost dry. He never does anything but tell Houdini’s story. Where Fleischman shows Houdini as simultaneous hero and hypocrite, Lalicki is lacking this kind of depth. However, Lalicki does have the singular advantage of being very careful with his facts. Not all bios are so careful. “Escape King” by John Ernst is well-written and unlike Fleischman it names the man who punched Houdini in the stomach slightly before his death. However, the book is fond of the “He could untie knots with his toes” myth. “Houdini” by Kathleen Krull makes the exact same mistake and for some reason changes the magician’s first named from Erich to Erik. Mildly confusing. “Houdini” by Clinton Cox is a classy looking affair and is very careful with its facts. It debunks the Detroit River and circus escape myths effectively. However, it offers contradictory facts when it comes to the circumstances surrounding the man who punched him in the stomach. In Cox’s tale, Houdini’s permission was clear and he began to stand up when he got punched. No other book makes this claim.

No matter what books have come out and what authors have crowed his accomplishments, Fleischman’s addition to this already overstuffed genre actually comes a bit of a relief. Houdini has garnered as many bios as he has partly because he’s such a perfect subject for a child’s interest. Who wouldn’t like to read about a fellow who could toss loose needles and thread in his mouth so as to pull them out perfectly threaded? With his facts straight and his inclination towards a good story firmly in place, Sid Fleischman’s, “Escape” makes for a delightful read and a wonderful tale. Even if you’ve 500 Houdini bios in your personal collection, you’d be wise to make a little space for this one as well.


At 10:17 AM , Blogger Dan McCoy said...

Y'know, when I was a kid, I read every (kids') Houdini biography I could get my hands on. Recently I've been thinking that I'll pick up an adult version of the same-- the people on Amazon seem to recommend "Escape!!!" (seems like an undue number of exclaimation points, but I'll still give it a try).

Also, you didn't ask, and it's not Children's Lit, but my favorite biography ever is Harpo Speaks! (what IS it with these exclaimation points). It gives fascinating background about the Marx Brothers, but gets even better when it details his involvement with the Algonquin Round Table gang.

At 3:05 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Actually, that raises a really good point. Why aren't there some kick-ass bios of the Marx Brothers out there? I can't find a single one in the system. Seems like a no-brainer, that one.

At 4:27 PM , Blogger Dan McCoy said...

The kick ass Marx bios are autobios. Read Harpo Speaks! and Groucho and Me. Sure, they're both at least half ghostwritten and stretch the truth from time to time, but they're very funny and engaging.

At 7:28 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

All right. You convinced me. To the library! Uh . . . oh. I mean, to the part of the library that isn't the children's room!

At 11:02 PM , Blogger Chad W. Beckerman said...

p.s. book design by Chad W. Beckerman ( Just sayin ) This was one of my favorite projects that I have had the pleasure to work on.


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