I read Running Out Time by Margaret Haddix Peterson, a former journalist, after a week of reading Lois Lowry's books The Giver, Gathering Blue and The Messenger. I didn't start to think about similarities between them until I noticed a quote on the back of Haddix's book by Newbery winner Richard Peck (A Year Down Yonder, 2001) that reads, "If Ray Bradbury had written The Giver, the result might rival Margaret Peterson Haddix' Running Out of Time." I don't think I agree with this assessment but, before I launch into my opinion, I'll lay out the plot.
Jessie Keyser is a young girl living in Clifton, Indiana. The year is 1840 and Jessie is happy with her life. Her mother is a midwife and she accompanies her when she visits the sick sometimes. Her father is the town blacksmith, and a very good one at that. Jessie is a daredevil, not like her older sister Hannah, who is already sweet on a boy. One night after going with her mother to the house of yet another sick child who needed to be quarantined, Ma pulls her aside and tells Jessie to meet her at remote rock out in the woods tomorrow and to tell no one. Within the first 21 pages of the book Jessie learns that she is not really living in 1840 as she and all of the other children of Clifton believed, but in 1996. Their home is really in the middle of a forest preserve that houses the tourist attraction that is the village of Clifton, not at the edge of an unsettled frontier, and there is a diphtheria outbreak that is not being treated properly because there was no cure for it in 1840. Jessie is the only person who can fit into the contemporary clothes that her mother smuggled into the village with her when they moved in twelve years ago, so she is the only one who might be able to escape and save the children.
Built by Miles Clifton twelve years earlier, Clifton Village is like the restored, working village of Williamsburg, VA, except that the tourists view the villagers through two-way mirrors and on special video feeds rather than interacting with them. Clifton is also a little bit like the PBS reality shows of a few years back, The 1900 House, which focused on one modern British family that agreed to live (in front of the cameras) for three months exactly as their ancestors had one hundred years earlier. This is an EXCELLENT series, by the way, and I highly recommend it for family viewing. PBS also produced Frontier House set in 1883 Montana, which focused on three very different families who had to build their own homes and survive for six months and, of course, had more bickering and personal issues as part of the drama than a show with only one family at the center. Next came Colonial House, which was set in "The New World," 1628 and focused on village life as well as individual struggles of of contemporary people trying to survive in the past and then Texas Ranch House, set in 1867. Once Jessie escapes, the rest of Running Out of Time is taken up with her race to get help and escape the person her mother said would be sure to help her. The explanation at the end of the book, which a reporter helps a hospitalized Jessie, who herself has come down with the disease, unravel, was a bit unsatisfying. It turns out that Mr Clifton, a millionaire, was urged by a scientist to use Clifton Village as a front for an experiment in how to breed a race of super strong humans who could survive epidemics. The hope was that the children born in Clifton would be experimented on with viruses and those who lived would be the strongest and go on to create an even stronger generation of children when they married and reproduced. I actually described it more specifically than Haddix does in the novel. Everything is pretty much detailed for an 8 - 10 year old mentality, which, considering the subject matter, is probably a good thing. I just can't help thinking how Lois Lowry managed to broach similar topics in a more philosophical, elegant way and in as many pages in her book The Giver. By using metaphors, like the loss of the ability to see color or hear music and the significance of memories, Lowry manages to pose so many important "what ifs" as well as incorporate suspense and danger into her story. Running Out of Time is Haddix's first book for young adults. Two years later, JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcers's Stone would be published in the United States and the world of fantasy and even science fiction books for children would be changed forever. Yet, young adult literature was not necessarily a fallow field waiting to be seeded, either. The Giver won the Newbery in 1994, proving that thought provoking, philosophical themes could be read and enthusiastically grasped by young readers. In that light, Running Out of Time was a bit of a disappointment for me. As with her newest book, Found, the first book The Missing Series, I felt like Haddix had a home-run idea with a great plot twist, I just didn't care for how she executed her ideas and this has presented me with a great challenge as a book reviewer, especially one of children's books. I do not ever want to be in to position of discouraging any child from reading a book and, were I at work, I certainly would never tell a child who picked up this book that I didn't enjoy it. I am an adult reader and I have different tastes, naturally. As a reviewer of children's books on a blog that I assume is read mostly by adults, my goal is to introduce parents to books and authors I think are valuable in terms of creativity, writing skill, and ability to imbue their characters with emotions and actions genuine to children. However, I also want to provide parents with as many options as possible. As the parent of a voracious reader, I don't mind (too much) when my daughter reads a book that I consider to be "less than literary" because I know that she will read something more challenging and enriching one or two books later. As the parent of a child who only grudgingly reads fiction, I am happy when he reads almost anything from start to finish and for both those reasons I think there is value in reviewing this book and calling it to your attention. But, I also think that it is important to share my criticisms, especially after starting the review with Richard Peck's quote. Comparing Running out of Time and The Giver is a little like comparing a made-for-television movie with an Oscar winner, or a Hostess cupcake with a homemade chocolate lava cake...
So, while I was disappointed that my needs as an adult reader were not met while reading Running Out of Time and I kept thinking of ways Haddix could have expanded and explored the great plot idea further while giving dimension to her characters, I am grateful that this book is short and simple enough to be read by a fourth grader or even a high reading third grader and maybe even get a reader's wheels spinning a little.