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Literature / Running Out of Time

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Running Out of Time is a 1995 Science Fiction young adult novel by Margaret Peterson Haddix. It is not related to either the Ozzy Osbourne song or the 1999 film by the Hong Kong director Johnnie To.

Jessie Keyser has lived 13 years thinking that she lives in a rural village called Clifton in 1840s Indiana. When her village is struck with a bout of diphtheria, her mother tells her the truth: The year is really 1996, and Clifton is nothing but a replica of a historic village, or a tourist attraction. Jessie is sent to go get the cure for diphtheria in secret in the outside world from a scientist named Mr. Neely. But something more dangerous is afoot when Jessie's search ends.

M. Night Shyamalan's The Village (2004) has a similar premise, and rumors exist the film was directly inspired by this book; the publisher, Simon & Schuster, made a public allegation of such, though never filed an actual lawsuit. For the trope that means "running out of time", see Race Against the Clock.

A sequel, Falling Out of Time, came out in 2023 about a descendant of Jessie's who lives in a seeming utopia in 2193, only to learn otherwise.

Tropes used by the novel:

  • Abusive Parents: Discussed when, after Jessie exposes the masquerade and is hospitalized for diphtheria, her parents and all the other adults are investigated on charges of child neglect and emotional abuse. One journalist points out that it was a huge burden for Jessie's mother to expect Jessie to carry the mission of notifying adults about the epidemic, though Jessie protests that she had to be the one to do it because her mother no longer fit into her only pair of modern-day clothes. Some parents are arrested, like Mr. Seward, but Jessie's parents are cleared and allowed to retain custody of their kids, provided that her dad goes to a therapist.
  • Adults Are Useless: The only adults around are A) unable to help, B) so far into denial/fear that they can't see the problem to help, or C) actively causing The Masquerade. This is fortunately averted with the adults outside of the village who quickly take action to end the experiment once the truth is revealed.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: Since the tourists obviously can't interact with the villagers, special portraits of the President, trick mirrors, and similar tactics are used to let them observe from afar. At least one tourist has commented on how voyeuristic it all is, but the tour guides cheerfully explain that the villagers are aware of the surveillance and have all consented to it, so if no one has any further questions, we'll be moving right along...
    • When Jessie's Ma admits that this was a really terrible thing to do to her children, Jessie tries to comfort her by saying, "You always did tell us God saw everything we did." Mrs. Keyser laughs and says that was something they deliberately emphasized. "Would you have behaved better if we said 'God and a bunch of strangers you've never met?'"
  • Bittersweet Ending: The men responsible for the experiment are arrested and Jessie and her friends and family can look forward to living a new modern life in the present day, but some of the children did not survive the plague that prompted Jessie to leave the village in the first place.
  • Brainy Brunette: Jessie laments that she's not pretty like her sister Hannah, but she's the smartest student in school. This is a part of the reason that Ma chooses Jessie, and not Hannah, to escape the village.
  • Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality: Jessie's father wanted to join Clifton Village because he was a genuinely talented blacksmith from his time working in another historical village, but there was no real call for that in the 1980s. After he was beaten by Clifton's men because Jessie was poking around the cameras, he began repressing his knowledge of the outside world and wouldn't let his wife speak of it. At the end of the book, he's still so deeply in denial that he needs a therapist, who has agreed that the family living on the Clifton site while they ease into the modern world would help.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The fat environmentalist's comment about how you can't trust the water, referring to a ditch that Jessie was about to drink out of, ends up saving her when she's given a glass of water with a sedative dissolved in it. She remembers talking to him and dumps the water out the window instead of drinking it.
  • Cool, Clear Water: Jessie, feeling thirsty after escaping from the fake 1840's village, stops to take a drink from water flowing through a ditch. An environmentalist stops her in time, telling her that, despite the water's pristine appearance, it's nowhere near safe to drink.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: Jessie is told to find Isaac Neeley, a man who opposed the formation of Clifton and can expose the diphtheria epidemic to the public and the media, and hopefully force Clifton's men to get treatment for the sick kids. However, Isaac Neeley died sometime in the decade between Mrs. Keyser losing all access to the outside world and the time of the story. Frank Lyle found out who Jessie was aiming to contact when his henchman bumped into her and saw the paper with his name and phone number on it, so he broke into the house of the family who now had the number so he'd be the one to answer her call.
  • Double-Meaning Title: "Running Out of Time" refers to how Jessie is in a Race Against the Clock to save the Clifton children, and how Jessie is literally running out of her time period into the present day.
  • Evilutionary Biologist: Frank Lyle, whose reason for letting people get sick in the town was to strengthen the immune systems of the survivors.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: A non-literal form of this trope, as Jessie is not really from 1840, but from a strictly-run historical preserve. However, 1996 is completely alien to her.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Jessie is told to wear her mother's clothes and blend in until she finds the man in charge of the experiment. This means that she has a hard time proving her claims on learning the Big Bad was infecting the children on purpose.
  • Heroic BSoD: After learning Mr. Neeley is planning to kill her, Jessie becomes convinced that she won't ever be able to escape the apartment, let alone save Katie and all the other Clifton children.
  • Innocent Bigot: When Jessie gets to the outside world, she meets Nicole, a black girl, and briefly considers commenting on how surprisingly smart she is and asking her what it's like to be a "Negro." Fortunately, she doesn't get a chance to actually say it.
    • Less innocent are the people she recalls from Clifton during this. She's been told that "Negros" have skin that is "pure black and hair that is pure curl," and that they aren't as smart as white people— something she immediately notes is untrue, because Nicole is very intelligent, and the only person who brings up the creepiness of the voyeurism. She also notes, upon seeing Nicole among white classmates, that "the abolitionists in Clifton" got their wish with slavery abolished— which implies that there are anti-abolitionists (ie, people who support slavery) in Clifton.
  • Kid Hero: Jessie, naturally. However, the trope is also deconstructed later on, by having someone bring into question what Jessie's mother was thinking when she snuck Jessie out of the town on her own to get help. This infuriates Jessie, who reminds the reporter explaining this to her that she already told him why she went instead of the adults: they only had one change of clothes, and none of the adult women could fit into them after multiple pregnancies.
  • Masquerade: The adults who joined Clifton when it was founded obviously know the truth, but they raised their children to believe it was the 1840s. They were initially meant to explain everything to the kids once they were old enough to understand, but that ended up being forbidden before any of the children could find out. The odd anachronism, such as the words "okay" and "shut up", still manage to creep in, which does not please the men in charge.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: Jessie travels into the "current year" of 1996, but the book itself was actually released in 1995.
  • The '90s: The book describes trends from the real present day and how they seem strange.
  • Not So Remote: And how! From an isolated little village on the frontier to inside a tourist center.
  • Obsolete Occupation: Jessie's dad is a talented blacksmith in an era where there is literally no use for one outside historical recreation villages like Clifton. After things start going south in Clifton, he represses his knowledge of the modern day and sinks firmly into denial. At first, Jessie's mother believed his refusal to talk about their modern-day lives was him simply trying to protect her (he'd been beaten for Jessie poking around the cameras), but she comes to believe it's deeper than that and Joseph Keyser ends up having the hardest time readjusting.
  • Past Right Now: The existence of the historical preserve, essentially a key aspect of the story.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: Subverted; Jessie collapses in the middle of reciting a Clifton lesson, but it serves the same purpose: the journalists realize she's ill and they all believe her.
  • Playing with Syringes: Clifton is actually the brain child of a few scientists, funded by a millionaire, who are trying to breed a race of super humans by releasing various diseases into the water until the survivors are immune to all of them.
  • Red Herring: While Jessie is trying to escape Mr. Neeley's room, she notes that her body feels achy and her throat is sore. She assumes it's because she walked all day yesterday and hasn't drank for several hours, but it's actually because she has diphtheria.
  • Seeking the Missing, Finding the Dead: Jessie finds out that the real Isaac Neeley died several years ago. Of course, her mother didn't know because none of the adults are allowed outside information, especially when it would be pertinent to helping escape the situation.
  • He Knows Too Much: Jessie's knowledge of what's happening in the town is reason enough for them to want to kill her.
  • Something Only They Would Say: The reporters at Jessie's press conference can't prove her story of a diphtheria epidemic, but they can prove she's a Clifton child: they ask her to recite all the Presidents, states, and capitals, like she would in the schoolroom. She does so near flawlessly — and then promptly faints from diphtheria, proving that, too.
  • There Are No Therapists: Played straight in the village, as the 1840's weren't swimming with psychiatrists. Averted in the end when Jessie's dad is required to attend therapy to deal with his denial of reality.
  • "Truman Show" Plot: Variant...not a reality show per se, but the people of Clifton are observed by tourists at any given time. Only the children didn't know the truth.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Frank Lyle, who intended to strengthen humanity against diseases.
  • What Would X Do?: Jessie's older sister, Hannah. When Clifton's men hold the school hostage, she thinks "What would Jessie do?" and trips Mr. Seward so that he drops his gun. His son, Chester, who Jessie was teasing her about having a crush on, picks it up and refuses to give it back, because he'll use it to hurt Hannah. Chester Seward marches his father outside of the schoolhouse and into police custody.
  • Wham Line:
    • Mr. Neeley saying that Jessie knows too much and that they'll have to kill her.
    • After Jessie escapes the apartment, she mentions meeting up with Isaac Neeley, to which someone reveals that "Isaac Neeley" has been dead for years.