The Secret of the Great Houdini Review

The Secret of the Great Houdini
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The figure of Houdini, so prominently referenced in Michael Chabon's, "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," gets the mythic treatment in this beautifully illustrated, ambitious book by Robert Burleigh and Leonid Gore. It features alluring, poetic prose from six different voices: The third person narrator ("The crowd is so still that even from far off the lock's tiny click can be heard as it snaps shut"), young Sam ("Is he afraid?"), his wise uncle Ezra(Everyone's afraid sometimes....The Great Houdini goes where he has to go"), a Greek chorus of other Houdini watchers ("He won't make it out!"), a man narrating Houdini's attempt to escape (while bound in chains) from a submerged, locked box, and the real or imagined words of Houdini, questioning the readers' beliefs:
I am Houdini.
I escape the hold of all things.
I free myself.
Do you believe me?"
Sam wonders and worries about Houdini's safety, but his uncle offers him reassuring metaphors"
"Sam looks at his own thin wrists. `Handcuffs?' Uncle Ezra Looks out of the corner of his eye. `Handcuffs are paper bracelets to the great Houdini.'" As Sam and the other spectators wait 30 seconds, I minutes, 2 minutes for Houdini to emerge from the river, Uncle Ezra recalls some of Houdini's prior feats, all of which will amaze young readers. Burleigh's vivid text brings you into Sam's anxious thoughts and over-identification with Houdini: "Locked in a trunk. Oh, locked in a trunk! Sam remembers the little click. He feels terrified fingers trying to pick and claw and force the lock."
The man yells, "Two Minutes at the Bottom of the River. Two. I repeat: Two Minutes. THE GREAT HOUDINI." Sam again imagines himself as Houdini; the crowd calls for an ambulance, but we "hear" Houdini again (in bolded italics, to differentiate it from the rest of the text):
I am Houdini.
I confound the sleeper.
I amaze the unwilling-to -believe.
I mystify the all-too-sure.
Leonid Gore's soft-focus blend of pastel and ink is equally adept in capturing the youthful emotions of Sam, and the mystery of Houdini beneath the waters. The first pictures show Houdini as Greek god, but when Houdini finally escapes, he looks unexpectedly tired and very human: "[He] awkwardly climbs the rope ladder." Houdini's current and past exploits are astounding, but Uncle Ezra reminds Sam that Houdini calls them "secrets," not tricks. IN the book's thematic close, Sam asks his Uncle what the secret is. Ezra explains, "It's a mix of many things. It's bravery and hard work and practice...," but then says" But maybe you shouldn't wonder so much about his secret... What's really important is finding your secret--something that becomes like a seed inside you--that will grow as you grow up." While one reviewer thought this "prim," and another, "unneccesary," it's consistent with the figure of Uncle Ezra and will get at least some (slightly older) kids thinking about their potential. It's slightly more concrete and not nearly as false-sounding as a few anachronistic New Ageisms that are not easily understood. Here's one example, a "quote" in the voice of Houdini:
"Mysterious is the water I move through,
(deeper than all of my doubters)
as a fish swims in the sea.
Do you believe?
This faux-Zen comment is too artful and forced, and puts the attention on the author rather than on Houdini or Sam. Similarly, Uncle Ezra's metaphors get a bit tired after a while; it begins to feel like you're hearing a loop of David Carradine lines in "Kung Fu." However, the otherwise well-written text, the building suspense, the interwoven biography of Houdini (there's also an afterward with a brief bio), illustrator Gore's atmospheric portrayal of mood and emotion, and the slightly ambiguous, thought-provoking conclusion make up for these few false steps. Note: Sam's vivid imagination of the terrors of Houdini's escape and the crowd's fear may scare some toddlers and others--use your judgment.

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