Har­ry and the High­wire: Houdini’s First Amaz­ing Act

  • Review
By – June 3, 2024

This pic­ture book biog­ra­phy begins with a quote from Pirkei Avot that cap­tures famed magi­cian Har­ry Houdini’s epic per­sis­tence: Accord­ing to the effort is the reward.” For­mer­ly named Ehrich Weiss, Hou­di­ni was born in Budapest, where his father was a rab­bi. Julie Car­pen­ter and Lau­ra Catalán show us a young Har­ry who is awed by the first cir­cus per­for­mance he wit­ness­es, and who wants to imi­tate the bound­less free­dom of its artists. Even­tu­al­ly, his refusal to give up trans­forms his life and the field of mag­ic at large.

Encour­aged by the Great Weitz­man,” the tightrope walk­er who inspired him, Har­ry leaves the show and imme­di­ate­ly begins to think about chang­ing his ordi­nary envi­ron­ment into a spec­ta­cle — an unortho­dox pur­suit that his moth­er sup­ports. A clothes­line becomes a chance to walk on air, even though his first attempt ends with Har­ry lying flat under a string of gar­ments. He doesn’t give up. He strings an ordi­nary rope every­where, even between trees out­side his syn­a­gogue. On the wall of his Hebrew school is a quote from Rab­bi Nach­man of Breslov: All the world is a very nar­row bridge.” Tak­ing this advice both lit­er­al­ly and fig­u­ra­tive­ly, Har­ry refus­es to be held back by heat, cold, rain, wind, or even a lack of confidence.

Carpenter’s lan­guage is sim­ple and direct, and Catalán’s pic­tures allow for shifts between char­ac­ters’ per­spec­tives. In one image, Har­ry is stand­ing on the top rung of a lad­der that’s lean­ing against his home. His neigh­bors are look­ing up toward him and talk­ing among them­selves. Then, as he walks across the high­wire, the peo­ple in the crowd below crane their necks to look up at the young boy who seems to be defy­ing grav­i­ty. The sto­ry and illus­tra­tions con­vey both Harry’s indi­vid­ual sense of com­mit­ment and the community’s faith in his dream.

This book includes fur­ther bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion and an illus­trat­ed time­line that charts Houdini’s progress beyond his first few shows. Through it all, he remained root­ed in his Jew­ish past.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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