True Story: Running Out of Time

Hey, friends! As you probably already know if you follow SSR over on Instagram, I was spending some quality time with my family at the Jersey shore earlier this week! We’ve been taking this trip every year since I was born, and while it’s changed over time — as my sisters and I get older, we’re not all able to stay for the whole trip, etc. — it’s a special tradition that I wouldn’t trade for anything. And while I did spend a few hours working each morning, I was able to be mostly out of the office for three days, which is very rare around here. Fun fact: it’s really hard to be 100% on vacation when you work for yourself. The good news is that this is the third family beach trip I’ve gone on since I started freelancing full-time, and I definitely did the best job yet of getting things lined up so I’d be able to take more of a breather. Yay!

The bad news, of course, is that the second half of the week (since I’ve gotten back to New York) has been a little crazy. This is true of every post-vacation reentry to real life, and I just happen to be turning around and getting back on the road again later this afternoon for a friend’s bachelorette party in Newport, Rhode Island. It is a crazy season of life that we’re in right now and my Type A self is slowly getting better at adjusting to the chaos as we go.

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With all of that said, this is going to be a shorter-than-usual edition of True Story… but I couldn’t miss the chance to post it! If you’ve listened to this week’s episode of the podcast, you already know how obsessed I was with Running Out of Time when I was growing up, so it’s about time that I share even more of my feelings about it — especially the ones I didn’t mention while I was recording with Rebecca.

So here’s an abbreviated(-ish) True Story post all about this 1995 thriller novel by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

(Need a refresher on this time-bending read? Check out the podcast episode here and a plot summary here.)

There’s a lot of interesting stuff around gender happening in Jessie’s village.

When we meet Jessie, she thinks of herself as a pretty average nineteenth-century tween. She’s going about her business in what she assumes (for good reason) is 1840s Indiana, and so she accepts as normal many of the cultural norms that are presented to her. As you can probably imagine, plenty of those norms come into play where gender is concerned.

In describing her own lack of fear of wild animals, the author refers to Jessie in relative terms to the boys in the village — “She was braver than anybody; she took more dangerous dares than the boys at school.” Jessie and her sister argue over the “proper” role for women in society, since the former has ambitions of becoming a doctor while the latter insists that there is no such thing as a woman practicing medicine. There’s even a reference to a minister named Reverend Holloway, who preaches the importance of women being obedient to their husbands.

I can only assume that the author put most of these elements into play in the book so that Jessie would be that much more surprised by the culture shock she experienced when she found herself in what she learned was the “modern” world, but still! These stunning gender disparities make a big impact on the boys and girls in the village.

Jessie’s caught the “cool girl syndrome” that we talk about sometimes.

I’ve read quite a bit about “cool girl syndrome” — the idea that some girls put themselves in direct opposition to everything that’s traditionally considered feminine for the sake of being too cool for school. Girls who actively reject girlfriends in favor of hangin’ out with dudes, for example, are poster children for this phenomenon. I don’t think there’s a value judgement to be made about “cool girl syndrome.” It’s simply an interesting concept to think about and to be on the lookout for in various forms of media. In rereading Running Out of Time as an adult, I realize that Jessie was probably one of the first cases of “cool girl syndrome” that I encountered growing up.

The more I think about how much pressure was on Jessie, the harder the story is to believe.

Her mother literally made her responsible for solving a diphtheria epidemic that was affecting her entire community… and she had to do it in a time and place that was entirely unknown to her. It’s just a litttttttle pressure on a thirteen-year-old. To Jessie’s credit, I think she handles it about as gracefully as could be expected!

Jessie is nearly a victim of assault and we kind of brush past it.

We spend a lot of time in the book on the so-called “fake Isaac Neely” — the man who Jessie thinks is going to help her get access to the medicine that her community so desperately needs, but who actually wants things to continue just as they are in Clifton so that its residents can go on participating unknowingly in genetic research — his attempt to murder Jessie, and her harrowing escape from him through the window of his house. It’s seriously scary stuff.

But what about the super creepy near-assault that happens when Jessie finds herself chatting with a carful of teenaged boys while she tries to find her way to Indianapolis? The boys taunt her and tease her and the whole situation is generally harrowing. When I read this as a kid, I probably brushed past it, thinking it was kind of a “boys will be boys” situation (shudder). This time around, I felt scared for Jessie. Based on their behavior, I felt sure that the boys were going to try to pull her into their car and assault her. It was a totally different reading experience!

Bravery — what it looks like, why it matters, why it’s different for everyone — figures heavily into the book.

Among her family and in her community, Jessie is considered “the brave one.” Her sister Hannah, in particular, seems to feel some shame about the fact that she’s not as courageous as Jessie, but at the end of the book, the two have a conversation about the brave things that Hannah had to do while Jessie was off searching for the medicine. Hannah tripped their teacher when it becomes clear that he’s on the wrong side of things, and she tells Jessie that she did it because she thought it was something she would do. And Jessie admits that she was trying to channel Hannah in her journey out of Clifton, because she knew how important it would be for her to be cautious. In that moment, they both realized that they had something to teach and offer the other — and that bravery can come in different forms.

Seriously… did I mention how much I loved Colonial Williamsburg?

Yes, I know I brought this up several times on the episode. But I really need you to know how serious my obsession was.

Listen to the podcast episode about Running Out of Time here!

I can’t wait to hear your “true story” thoughts about this book. Share them with me in the comments below.

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