Sunday, September 7, 2008

Great Escapes

For some children, at certain points in their childhood, their very existence can seem like an exercise in attempted escape. An escape from parental control, from convention, from noisome siblings, from chores and homework, from all the things that constrain them from being what they want to be (of which they aren't quite certain, but let that stand). It can be a trying period of stresses and strains within the family but, usually, actually strengthens, sooner or later, those gossamer ties that bind us together.

Reading, by its very nature, is an act of escape (see Great Escapes booklist). When we take up a book, we cast off the bindings that constrain us to the here-and-now and we go to some place of our choosing in the company of characters in whom we are interested. But, like a mirror within a mirror, our children's literature is also full of wonderful stories of escape. Stories in which characters are caught in situations not of their own design but display the planning, skills, courage and gumption to pull off their plan for escaping from where they are towards where they want to be. Not running away or fleeing, not as panicked refugees, and not as subjects of someone else's rescue but as agents of their own future.

Refugees present a special case. Some of their stories are not really so much about escape as they are testaments to adaptability and resourcefulness in the face of chaos. Their stories can and do inspire but are not quite what we are seeking in the idea of great escapes, those in which the hero is trying to manage his own future in a way that chaos usually precludes. Having said that though, there are certainly some clear cases of people fleeing from some disruption in a flight that has all the hallmarks of an escape.

I recall the Principal of the school I attended in Sweden, Mrs. Dietze, once relating to some of us students her experiences as a young woman during World War II in eastern Germany. Those experiences ultimately led to her escape to Sweden after her home city of Dresden was occupied by the Russians. Mrs. Dietze was a remarkable, resilient woman. From a child's perspective her height and steely discipline could seem daunting until you began to talk with her. It was then that you could see beyond the surface to the warm person that she was. There was one scene, though, in her personal story that has always cut to the heart. She related how she had to move from some place to another on very short notice and could only bring a single suitcase of possessions. I can still freshly feel the horror as she related having to pick out the few books from her collection that she could fit into that single case. That was all she brought with her. Like many people, hers was a remarkable life once you got to know her.

There are some refugee stories that are close to the heart of children's literature as in the story for example, of the Rey's, travelling through Europe, just a few steps ahead of the Nazis, with the first Curious George manuscript in their trunk (The Journey That Saved Curious George: The True Wartime Escape Of Margret And H. A. Rey by Louise Borden.)

Our country's history of slavery created the opportunity for many escape stories related to the Underground Railroad which assisted individuals in moving from the slave-holding South to freedom in the North. There are many, many fictionalized tales in children's literature of various slave escapes. As often happens though, the most interesting stories are the ones based on a true tale. One such story is that of William and Ellen Craft who escaped from Macon, Georgia to Philadelphia in 1848. Ellen Craft was the daughter of a slave mother and white father and was very fair skinned. To effect their escape, her husband, William posed as her personal slave, putatively accompanying his master. Ellen posed as a young white man travelling to Philadelphia for medical treatment of his injured jaw (which was all bound up so that Craft would not have to talk with strangers on their journey.) Ellen Craft had to pull off a quadruple impersonation: white instead of black, male instead of female, the manners of an affluent social position instead of a servant, and the linguistic habits of a white southerner over those of a black slave.

The Crafts made it to Philadelphia, despite many close calls, and ultimately settled in Britain until after the Civil War when they returned to Georgia. While in England they published an account of their escape, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, which recounts the many close calls they had on their journey to Philadelphia. While not in print, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom is available electronically and free at the Gutenberg Project site. It is an easy read for a high school student and being the direct account by the actual participants, carries with it an impact rarely achieved by fictional retellings.

Another contemporaneous rendering of an escape is that of the famous abolitionist and orator, Frederick Douglas, in The Life and Times of Frederick Douglas. I fear that the tragic stories of slavery from a hundred and fifty years ago often get hijacked and devalued by modern advocates of victimhood. I think it is refreshing for older teens to go back to these original accounts to begin to comprehend the horrors of slavery and the courage of some these people. They are very directly written and accessible and astonishingly free from special pleading or self-misery which often afflict later renderings. Other accounts in this collection based on real people and their escapes to the North include 5,000 Miles to Freedom, The Daring Escape of Ellen Craft, and Letters from a Slave Girl.

The other human tragedy that has generated a very large volume of escape stories was that of World War II. These stories generally fall into two categories. There are those that are related to the Holocaust - Jews either escaping capture in the first place and then making their way out of Germany, or those that managed to escape from the concentration camps or ghettos in which they were confined. The second category of escape stories are those of allied Prisoners of War escaping from their imprisonment.

The archetypal POW escape was that of 76 allied prisoners from Stallag Luft III on the night of March 24, 1944 after more than a year of planning and preparation which included forged identity documents, currency, civilian clothing, special maps, and other necessities that would help them make it to a neutral country. The Great Escape by Paul Brackhill is probably the best account to start with as he was actually a participant in the plan (though not an escapee owing to his claustrophobia which precluded his using the tunnels). Tragically, only three of the seventy-six escapees made it back to Britain and of the remaining seventy-three who were recaptured, fifty were executed. This is one of those stories though, where your compassion for the victims and anguish over their execution is finely counterbalanced by respect and admiration for their goals, actions and audacity.

A couple of really good tales covering some of the escapes of Jews from Germany include the fictional The Greatest Skating Race or Twenty and Ten (the latter based on a true story). In both these tales, besides the excitement of the escape, there is admiration for the selfless courage of the people putting themselves in mortal danger in order to help their fellow human beings escape the evil around them.

In all these tales there is a moral weight to the stories that inspires and sets an example to the reader in terms of doing the right thing even in the face of the gravest danger and most daunting odds.

Not all escape stories necessarily have this mortal weight to them. Years ago I read, and unfortunately do not recall the title, an account of Italian prisoners of war being held by the British in eastern Africa, in either Kenya or Tanganyika. I think it must have been No Picinic on Mount Kenya. Bored to the extreme by their confinement, three of the Italian prisoners of war banded together in order to escape. Their purpose? Climb Mount Kilimanjaro (then called Mount Kenya) which they could see on the distant horizon from their prison camp. A prisoners' day trip as it were. The wonderful thing is that they succeeded in reaching one of the three summits. Having done so, they planted a home-made Italian flag, then cheerfully returned to the prison camp, their sense of self-worth and accomplishment well replenished.

Escapes are not solely about war and slavery. One of the very best escape stories is that of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Shackleton led an expedition to cross the Antarctic by foot. His ship, the Endurance, departed Britain August 8, 1914. There are several first-rate accounts of the struggles that followed, but one of the best is Endurance by Alfred Lansing. In February 1915, the Endurance became trapped in ice in the Waddell Sea, eventually succumbing to the pressures of the ice and sinking in November. Meanwhile, Shackleton and his men had set up camp and overwintered on the ice flow. In the spring, with the break-up of the ice, they manned the surviving lifeboats and made it to the remote, barren, and rarely visited Elephant Island. Leaving the crew on Elephant Island, Shackleton and two others refitted one of the lifeboats and then sailed 800 miles to the nearest settled island (a seasonal whaling station), South Georgia Island in the deep South Atlantic.

That leg of their escape alone is one of the classic small vessel sailing tales, the South Atlantic being a notoriously unforgiving environment. From his later book, South, here is Shackleton's description of just a single event in that two week journey to South Georgia.

The sky was overcast and occasional snow-squalls added to the discomfort produced by a tremendous cross-sea - the worst, I thought, that we had experienced. At midnight I was at the tiller and suddenly noticed a line of clear sky between the south and south-west. I called to the other men that the sky was clearing, and then a moment later I realized that what I had seen was not a rift in the clouds but the white crest of an enormous wave. During twenty-six years' experience of the ocean in all its moods I had not encountered a wave so gigantic. It was a mighty upheaval of the ocean, a thing quite apart from the big white-capped seas that had been our tireless enemies for many days. I shouted, "For God's sake, hold on! It's got us!" Then came a moment of suspense that seemed drawn out into hours. White surged the foam of the breaking sea around us. We felt our boat lifted and flung forward like a cork in breaking surf. We were in a seething chaos of tortured water; but somehow the boat lived through it, half-full of water, sagging to the dead weight and shuddering under the blow. We baled with the energy of men fighting for life, flinging the water over the sides with every receptacle that came to our hands, and after ten minutes of uncertainty we felt the boat renew her life beneath us. She floated again and ceased to lurch drunkenly as though dazed by the attack of the sea. Earnestly we hoped that never again would we encounter such a wave.

Landing on the southwestern side of the island and with their boat nearly destroyed, and his four crewmates exhausted and frostbitten, Shackleton faced one further barrier between his party and the whaling stations on the north coast. They could not make the one hundred and fifty mile journey in their boat; neither boat nor crew being in a fit condition to do so. That meant that they had to cross the range of mountains and glaciers athwart the center of the island, peaks rising to 6,500 feet. These mountains had never been climbed before and, in fact, were not traversed again for another forty years. But they made it, with Shackleton subsequently returning to Elephant Island to rescue the remainder of his crew. Truly one of the most amazing escapes of all time.

We have gathered together below a range of escape stories for the very young to very old which we think will inspire and move you. They cover war escapes, prison escapes, escapes to freedom, fictional tales of escape as well as true accounts. Let us know your recommendations.

Picture Books

The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Clement Hurd Highly Recommended

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson Highly Recommended

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak Highly Recommended

The Greatest Skating Race by Louise Borden and illustrated by Niki Daly Recommended

A Picture Book of Harriet Tubman by David A. Adler and illustrated by Samuel Byrd Suggested

The Escape of Marvin the Ape by Caralyn Buehner and Mark Buehner Suggested

The Great Pig Escape by Eileen Christelow Suggested

Barefoot by Pamela Duncan Edwards and illustrated by Henry Cole Suggested

Going North by Janice N. Harrington and illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue Suggested

What Do You Do When Something Wants to Eat You? by Steve Jenkins Suggested

Labyrinths by Philippe Mignon Suggested

Independent Readers

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and illustrated by W. W. Denslow and William Stout Highly Recommended

Endurance by Alfred Lansing Highly Recommended

Charlotte's Web by E. B. White and illustrated by Garth Williams Highly Recommended

Turn Homeward, Hannalee by Patricia Beatty and Particia Beatty Recommended

Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop and illustrated by William Pene Du Bois Recommended

The Children's Homer by Padraic Colum and illustrated by Willy Pogany Recommended

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer Recommended

Holes by Louis Sachar Recommended

The Wanderings Of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff and illustrated by Alan Lee Recommended

Alicia by Alicia Appleman-Jurman Suggested

Peacebound Trains by Haemi Balgassi and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet Suggested

The Journey That Saved Curious George by Louise Borden and illustrated by Allan Drummond Suggested

Runaway Ralph by Beverly Cleary and illustrated by Louis Darling Suggested

The Naming by Alison Croggon Suggested

Stella Louella's Runaway Book by Lisa Campbell Ernst Suggested

Escape! by Sid Fleischman Suggested

5,000 Miles to Freedom by Dennis B. Fradin & Judith Bloom Fradin Suggested

Escape Across the Wide Sea by Katherine Kirkpatrick Suggested

Letters from a Slave Girl by Mary E. Lyons Suggested

The Daring Escape of Ellen Craft by Cathy Moore and illustrated by Mary O'Keefe Young Suggested

Trouble Don't Last by Shelley Pearsall Suggested

Maria Von Trapp by Candice F. Ransom Suggested

South by Ernest Henry Shackleton and photographs by Frank Hurley Suggested

Lonek's Journey by Dorit Bader Whiteman Suggested

Young Adult Books

The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill Highly Recommended

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and illustrated by Steven Kellogg Highly Recommended

No Picnic On Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi Recommended

The Great Escape From Stalag Luft III by Tim Carroll Recommended

Papillon by Henri Charriere Recommended

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass Recommended

The Great Escape by Anton Gill Recommended

Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer Recommended

We Die Alone by David Armine Howarth Recommended

Rabbit-proof Fence by Doris Pilkington Recommended

Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain Recommended

Mila 18 by Leon Uris Recommended

The Greatest Escape Stories Ever Told by Darren Brown Suggested

Escape From Alcatraz by J. Campbell Bruce Suggested

Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper Suggested

On Wings Of Eagles by Ken Follett Suggested

The Special Forces Guide To Escape And Evasion by Will Fowler Suggested

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz Suggested

Escape from the Antarctic by Ernest Henry Shackleton Suggested

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