Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Such Things As Dreams:" William S. and the Great Escape by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The weepy eyes were no surprise. But what he certainly hadn't foreseen was how the conversation began. The first words out of Jancy's mouth were, "Look here, William, I know you're getting ready to run away. You are, aren't you?"

Puzzled, William shrugged. "Well, yeah, I guess so. Sooner or later."

"I'm just plain finished with being a Baggett," she told William fiercely. "So I'm going to run away, too, as soon as ever I can."

With those brave words from Jancy, the great escape is set in motion.

William has taken the middle initial S from his idol, William Shakespeare, hoping that the placement of the Bard's last name will separate him from his last name, from his coarse and cruel father and half-siblings who make his life miserable. But when the older Baggett boys drown little sister Trixie's guinea pig in the toilet as a prank, Jancy insists that it's time for her and William and their little siblings Buddy and Trixie to try to escape to the refuge of their mother's sister, Aunt Fiona, on the California coast. Big Ed Baggett has no love or concern for his four youngest, but keeps them around for the "Depression dollars" their presence earns to support his slothful lifestyle.

Twelve-year-old William has been saving his earnings for years, planning to run away when he's old enough to blend into the general population, but the addition of ten-year-old Jancy, six-year-old Trixie, and four-year-old Buddy makes it almost impossible to make an inconspicuous escape. But at Jancy's prodding, the four kids steal away in the dark hours before dawn, hiding in ditches from the occasional passing car, with a wagon loaded with their belongings. Seeking concealment during the day by means of an open cellar door, the runaways are discovered by the teenaged Clarice, a well-to-do but emotionally needy daughter of work-absorbed lawyer parents, who secretly takes the family in to satisfy her own loneliness and her love for the drama of the venture, feeding and hiding them well, all the while trying to keep them with her for daytime company.

But William knows that their presence will be discovered by her parents soon, and the kids make another pre-dawn flight, this time from Clarice's cellar, and manage to take a bus which will drop them only a few miles from their aunt's house. But William is sure that they have been spotted by a roughneck friend of the Baggett boys, and even Aunt Fiona's fond welcome doesn't allay his fears that the Baggetts will soon be hard on their trail. Hopefully, they set up an emergency hideaway under the eaves, entered through a tiny door in their aunt's closet, but when the Baggetts do track them down, they are dragged out, beaten, and returned to their old lives with their worthless family.

All seems lost but for Clarice, who resolutely puts together left-behind clues as to Aunt Fiona's address and eventually pulls her high-powered parents into her mission to restore the four children to a real home with their aunt and a chance for a decent life. "All's well that ends well," and three-time Newbery winner Zilpha Keatley Snyder's William S. and the Great Escape (Atheneum, 2009) blends quirky but appealing characters and an exciting "road story" into a fast-moving and poignant novel for middle readers who like their adventures on the historical side.

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