Old Favorite: Running Out of Time

What if everything you knew was a lie?  That’s the premise of this week’s Old Favorite: Running Out of Time, by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

* * *

Jessie is a normal girl, growing up in Clifton, Indiana. She lives with her Ma and Pa and her five brothers and sisters, goes to the one-room schoolhouse down the road, and plays with her friends after her chores. She can recite the history of Clifton, and the presidents right up to Van Buren, the current man in office. It’s 1840, and Jessie is comfortable with her place in the world. Until the younger children in the village start becoming sick.

Ma, who has had nurses training, diagnoses children with something called diphtheria. Jessie’s never heard of it before, but it’s said to be life-threatening, and some of the younger children are seriously ill. Suddenly, most of the adults in Clifton seem secretive, and worried.  And when Jessie’s little sister Katie becomes the most recent child to fall sick, Jessie’s mother tells her that she has a secret.

It turns out that Clifton is not everything it seems to be…there are cameras hidden all over town, and all the inhabitants are being observed by tourists most of the time. Jessie’s head reels as she takes in all the unfamiliar terms, and discovers that  it’s not 1840 at all, but 1996.  Clifton is actually a living history museum, only the children of the village have no idea. The adults have known since they agreed to participate in this experimental “return to history” sixteen years ago.

Jessie listens as Ma tells her how the world outside has changed. The best news is that diphtheria is completely curable in the modern world.  The worst? That the Clifton families are trapped; Miles Clifton, the millionaire who came up with the tourist village, has exerted so much power over the residents that there is currently no communication between the villagers and the outside world. Even trying to contact the watching tourists is under his control, so there is absolutely no way to ask for help. Jessie,  Ma and everyone else are prisoners in 1840. The only way to save Katie and the other sick children is for someone to risk everything and escape–to go out into the “future” and find some help. None of the adults can do it, because they would be missed by the cameras and guards right away.

With a quick summary of over a hundred years worth of technology and social developments, Jessie escapes the guards keeping watch over the town and heads out in to the real world, to bring back help. But Jessie soon finds herself surrounded by the unfamiliar modern world, and in terrible danger. Can she save herself and her town? There is a time limit, and Jessie is running out of time.

* * *

Running Out of Time isn’t that old as children’s books go…it was published in 1995, the year that Jessie suddenly finds herself living in. It was extremely popular when it came out, but isn’t read quite so much now. That’s a shame, because it’s a wonderful adventure story, with an extremely likable and intelligent heroine in a dangerous situation!

Jessie’s story will keep you right on the edge of your seat.  Think about it–Jessie knows nothing about telephones, planes, subways, television or most things kids growing up now take for granted.  (Even if you just think about what has changed just between 1995 and 2011–things like smart phones, thumb drives, ipods–jumping forward sixteen years might throw some.)  Not only is she in a completely strange setting, but Jessie is on the run, trying to navigate in a world she doesn’t know, on the run from people trying to stop her. Do you think you might be able to jump ahead a hundred years and know how to act or what to do to save your family?

Every person I’ve asked about this book remembers it well, and enjoyed it. (Even if they don’t remember the author and title, they remember the plot.) This is a very appealing story for kids in fourth through sixth grade, especially if they’ve visited tourist attractions that feature living history re-enactments; places like Plimouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg.  It’s also a great read-aloud, so if you’re looking for something that might appeal to a large group, consider Running Out of Time!



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