Everybody and their dog knows the name of Harry Houdini. But very few know the real story of his life.
The man we know of as Harry Houdini began his life with a very different name. Born into a Jewish family, Harry’s real name was Ehrich Weiss and he was the fifth of seven children. At an early age, Harry conceived a fascination with visual illusions; by the age of nine he had performed as a trapeze artist with a traveling circus, and at seventeen he embarked upon his lifelong career.
A man whose name has become synonymous with ‘escapee’, Houdini worked very hard throughout his life, perfecting his tricks, and exercising continuously to remain in pristine physical condition. He and his wife Bess traveled all over the country, all over the world performing his dangerous escape performances. Houdini first met with prestige and recognition in Europe when he issued a challenge that no policeman could place handcuffs on him that he could not escape from. As his claim rang true in city after city, Houdini added more and more thrilling acts to his show including escapes from straitjackets and being bound up in a trunk which was submerged in water.
Houdini’s fame followed him to America and he continued to perform until the age of fifty-two. Ironically, he died of appendicitis rather than through any of his death-defying acts.
The words ‘magic’ and ‘magician’ are constantly applied to those who practice sleight of hand tricks and illusions. There are no real practices of magic in the story.
Harry’s parents – his father especially – are not very pleased with Harry’s goal to become a magician. On one occasion he asks to join a circus and they forbid him. He tries to reason with them, but they refuse to grant their consent. The book says that,
“Suddenly Ehrich was furious. Why couldn’t they understand? Already he was Ehrich, Prince of the Air. Soon, with a little practice, he could also be the greatest magician ever. Audiences from as far away as Milwaukee would come just to see him perform. He had to go.” [pg. 33]
Harry is no longer angry by the next page.
Not long after this, Harry runs away from home to begin his career as a circus performer.
On another page, Harry comments that his father just doesn’t understand – which, he doesn’t, but it is hardly an admirable stereotype.
In one place Harry says that it’s a good thing his Papa doesn’t know what he’s thinking.
Although I knew little about Houdini before reading this book, I did know that towards the end of his life he became interested in séances, and I worried about how the author would handle this. I thought she did a fine job; she glossed over his initial belief in them and dove straight into his efforts to disprove them. The descriptions of séances only occur in the context of Harry enumerating their frauds and are mild. However, the topic lasts for eight pages.
Conclusion. Like the other books in the Childhood of Famous Americans Series, Harry Houdini is interesting and informational while written at the level of younger readers. Click here for other resources on Harry Houdini.
Review © 2012 Laura Verret