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The Runaways, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Updated on August 18, 2015

The day Dani O'Donnell finds herself starting to carve her name into Hank's grave marker, she decides that she has to get out of Rattler Springs. She has been considering the possibility for a long time and has even done the research into how much a bus ticket to Reno (the first step of a trip back home) would cost, but this is the first time that she has known that she had to get out of there.

The year is 1951, and four years earlier, when Dani was eight, Dani and her widowed mother, Linda, moved to Rattler Springs, Nevada. For a time when Dani was younger, Linda had a second husband, a man named Chance. When Linda and Chance divorced, they stayed on good terms and kept in touch. Chance bought a ranch outside of Rattler Springs and soon afterwards died of a heart attack, leaving the ranch to Linda. Linda quit her job in Sea Grove, California, packed all of her and Dani's belongings into a truck, and headed southeast to Nevada.

Their truck died immediately upon their arrival in Rattler Springs, never to be revived again. Soon afterwards, Linda and Dani found out that Chance had exaggerated his living situation. There was not enough water for cattle in Rattler Springs, so the ranch was a thousand acres of sand and rock with a large house that lacked electricity and running water.

Not having any money, or transportation back out of Rattler Springs, Linda got a part-time job at the local bookstore, and she and Dani rented out a cabin owned by the richest family in town, the Grablers.

In the intervening four years, bills have been piling up, and now Linda and Dani are languishing under a pile of debt that Dani is certain will mean that they will never get out of Rattler Springs. Linda has dreams, though, and she believes that things will work out and they will go back to Sea Grove someday.

A little boy named Stormy lives in the hotel next door with his mom, Gloria. Stormy is known to have a temper, particularly if you try to talk to him about his mom. He has adopted Linda and Dani as family. Stormy has dyslexia, but he loves stories and Dani reluctantly agrees to read book after book to him.

It doesn't take long for Stormy to realize that Dani is planning to run away and he insists on going with her. So now Dani has to find nearly twice as much money as she would have had to find just for herself -- since Stormy is younger than Dani, he can get to Sea Grove on a child's fare, which is less than Dani's.

Then the Smithsons move into town to do geological research, and rent the ranch from Linda. Pixie, their daughter, finds out about the plan to run away, and insists on going with them. Her family is wealthy, so she offers to provide the money they need for the trip if they will take her with them.

And then they find out the real reason why they need to leave, and their project takes on an unexpected level of urgency

A number of themes go throughout this book. One is the nature of imagination. Dani claims that she has no use for reading or imagination, but there are many times when her imagination gets the best of her and whenever the book she is reading to Stormy gets really exciting, she finds herself reading ahead to see what happens next. Pixie also has an active imagination. For example, when she finds that one of her classmates has speculated that her parents are conducting Frankenstein-like experiments at the isolated ranch, she runs with it, even telling Stormy that she wants to run away because her parents want to use her body parts in their experiments.

Closely related, as I mentioned above, is the nature of reading. Linda escapes from her day-to-day problems into books, which is likely a large part of why Dani has such disdain for reading. Pixie turns out to be an avid reader, which helps fuel her flights of imagination. Pixie also has an extensive library of her own, which helps bond her to Stormy.

Another theme, which if you are going to share this book with a child, might be a good discussion point, is the difference between dreams and plans. Linda has dreams. She did, after all, drag her only child hundreds of miles to live on a ranch that she had never seen. She also has dreams that something will happen to take them away from Rattler Springs. Dani, on the other hand, wants to get out of Rattler Springs and she makes plans to get there. She finds out how much bus fare costs and saves up. When she is short on her goal, she makes plans to make up the difference. And when it turns out that the kids do have to leave Rattler Springs, she comes up with the plan to get them out.

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