________________ CM . . . . Volume XX Number 24. . . .February 21, 2014


Saving Houdini.

Michael Redhill.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins, 2014.
272 pp., hardcover., $19.99.
ISBN 978-1-44340-994-0.

Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.

Review by Kris Rothstein.

***½ /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



People continued to scurry along the street. It was lunchtime now and ladies stepped nimbly over the streetcar tracks; men passed by folding their fedoras down on their heads. All the hats! Many of the men had large furry beards. It was hard to see their faces.

And there was a gas station right on the sidewalk! He’d seen old gas station commercials where boys with freckles and white-billed caps washed windshields with white cloth serviettes. A nickel thumb-flicked into the air afterwards. There was a kid of no more than fourteen using a pump that looked like a baby bottle with a glass top. It was all strangely close to the sweet old-timey images he’s seen now and again, but at the same time, there was something scary about it.

How did he get here? And who would ever think to look for him here? Who was going to help him?

A voice was calling to him. Not just in his head, but an actual man’s voice. He was saying, “Hey! Son?”

The man was wearing an apron over a suit and holding a pair of scissors. Dash took a big step back.

But the man was smiling. “Circus leave without you?”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Or are you just in from Prussia?”

Dash didn’t know what to say. That man was looking up and down the sidewalk. “Where are your parents? They let you walk around in public with such majestic hair? And no hat?”

Dash took his eyes off the man long enough to look at the shop window. MILLS BARBERS was painted on the glass. HAIRCUTS 25¢


Dashiel Woolf likes magic. That’s why he and his parents are at the Canon Theatre in Toronto watching magician Bloom the Beguiler. The 11-year-old Dash particularly wants to see a rare trick, the Soap Bubble Vanish, and is actually disappointed when he is chosen to be the audience member involved in the illusion since he won’t get to watch it unfold. While on stage, he is given an envelope and sent into a metal ring. When the soap bubble he is encased in is popped, he is suddenly in an empty theatre. Where has everyone gone, he wonders? He doesn’t have much time though before he’s chased out onto the street where everything is different. He eventually accepts that the trick has sent him back in time to 1926. He meets Walt, a feisty kid his own age, and he convinces Walt to help get him home, partly on the strength of a newspaper photo he finds in the envelope he was given just before the magic trick. In this photo, both Walt and Dash are at a lecture given by Harry Houdini in Montreal, an event which will happen the next day. After failing to convince Blumenthal, the grandfather of Bloom the Beguiler (also a magician and inventor of the trick), they figure they had better get to Montreal and hope that Houdini can invent the trick which will send Dash home. While they are at it, Dash hopes he can prevent the events leading to Houdini’s death which will happen a few days later.

     Many of the standard tropes of time travel stories are done particularly well in this novel. When Dash arrives in 1926, his reaction is nuanced and credible. Too many time travel stories include a blasé protagonist with very unbelievable reactions to his or her incredible predicament. Dash is suitably confused and skeptical, but he accepts his reality in degrees just at the right times. He is excited, but he is also lonely. His emotions feel very real. The scenes where Dash enters 1926 Toronto and notices the different buildings and clothes are wonderfully descriptive and conjure up a past time in the city without being over the top. Michael Redhill also does a great job in those scenes where Dash needs to convince someone he is from the future. The slow dawning of belief is handled very well and makes it a very fun ride for the reader.

     I love the little foreshadowing in the first chapter where Dash’s dad is talking about how everything used to be better in the old days. And Dash agrees once he gets there! He seems to get more than his fair share of pastries, and each one astonishes him. It is so refreshing that the novel jumps right in and that the action begins from the very first page. No tedious lead up here.

     Dash is a very fun character, just thoughtful, active and interesting enough to pull readers along on his ride. However, his interest in magic should have been expanded upon more than just the quarter tricks he does to entertain Walt and his little sister. His skills could have been a real asset in the past, for example when he is destitute and without money for food, for train fare to Montreal and without cash to get into Blumenthal’s performance. Perhaps he also could have been in on the attempts to invent the Soap Bubble Vanish instead of completely removing himself once Houdini and Blumenthal have decided to collaborate. Wouldn’t Dash jump at the chance to work with these two and offer whatever expertise he has since he is such a fan? This seemed like a missed opportunity in many ways. The story also would have been better if Dash was generally a little more active in his own past. His only job seems to be to find Blumenthal and convince him to figure out the trick. But he gives up and tries Houdini instead and then sits back for the ride. The plot would have been a lot more interesting and the character more complex if Dash was much more in the thick of every bit of action and had a lot more on his shoulders. The stakes don’t seem quite high enough in a book which is actually filled with a lot of drama and adventure.

     Redhill obviously felt the need for a villain and for some disruption to make Dash’s mission even more difficult. Adding in the police who are always after Dash and Walt and the Dickensian child welfare officers always trying to send them to an orphanage becomes farcical in its repetition. Perhaps once would have been enough, or perhaps Redhill could have thought of something else to add more difficulty to Dash and Walt’s task. A number of times their mission goes awry because someone goes for an unnecessary walk or another slightly dubious plot twist. There is a second villain, Houdini’s manager who distrusts Dash. This also seems overdone, overwrought and repetitive. These hurdles to Dash’s goal really could have been simplified and streamlined.

     The title is misleading as Dash and Walt do incredibly little to save Houdini even though they know how much danger he is in. This ‘saving’ includes asking other people to stop him from going to Detroit where he will die. The aforementioned child protection flunkies keep Dash from being able to do anything about the biggest problem, the man who punches Houdini and purportedly ruptures his appendix. But even so, Dash had little planned to stop this from happening. I had imagined a much more elaborate and ingenious scenario where the Soap Bubble Vanish would actually be used to help Houdini disappear and the plot might include him faking his demise or travelling back in time to prevent it. No such luck. This is a real lost opportunity in a book with quite a lot of padding which could have been dropped for more intrigue.

     Despite the room for improvement, Saving Houdini is genuinely entertaining in a way that few Canadian historical novels are. It is a wild and fun romp and will keep almost any reader turning the pages to see how Dash will get home. Because the history always serves the story, readers will find out a lot about Toronto in the 1920s and early magic and vaudeville but will never feel like they are being taught a lesson in history.

Highly Recommended.

Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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