Margaret Peterson Haddix's Running Out of Time was my second book for the 48 Hour Book Challenge. It's a book that I've wanted to read for quite a while (it was published in 1995), and I'm happy to have had the opportunity. This is a book that hooked me from the premise, and that I trusted because I have enjoyed everything I've read by Haddix.
Thirteen-year-old Jessie Keyser lives with her family in the small town of Clifton, Indiana in 1840. Her father is the village blacksmith, and her mother, a midwife, sneaks out at night to help sick families. Jessie has noticed a few odd things about Clifton, like the way her teacher always makes them say what year it is in class, the odd box that was attached to one of the trees in the village square, and the way the adults react angrily when the children use the word "okay". Most alarmingly, however, she's noticed recently that the town doctor has stopped giving out medicines, and that the village children are getting sick. Extremely sick. Including Jessie's precious youngest sister.
Jessie's world turns on its axis when her mother reveals to her that it isn't really 1840 at all, but rather 1996. Jessie's parents moved to Clifton, a "historical preserve" 12 years earlier, agreeing to raise their children as though they were really living in the 1800's. Clifton is actually a tourist attraction, the citizens watched through 2-way mirrors and video cameras. Things have turned dark in Clifton, however, and now Jessie must make a dangerous quest to the outside world, to seek medicine.
Can you imagine? Learning that the world you thought that you lived in wasn't true? Learning that modern conveniences could have kept you from doing laundry by hand, and that you had been denied modern medicine? Learning that people had been watching you for your whole life, during times that you thought you were alone? What a fascinating idea, and one that Haddix executes brilliantly. Jessie's sense of dislocation, and her fear and paranoia as she first confronts the 20th century, feel real. She has to figure out how to use a pay phone (this would be even harder if the book was published today, since there are so few pay phones left), and a modern toilet. It's a clever spin on time-travel, under a set of circumstances that could (albeit improbably) actually occur.
I read this book straight through without pausing for breath, eager to know what would happen to Jessie and her family. Recommended for middle grade readers, boys and girls, especially to fans of speculative fiction, historical fiction, and time travel stories.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.