For the most part, Escape from Witch Mountain is an exciting adventure story. Tony and Tia are sympathetic orphans, Father O’Day is a friendly helper, and Lucas Deranian is an evil villain. Alexander Key does more, however, than simply tell a good story. He also paints an unattractive portrait of human society and, in contrast, creates a sense of wonder and magic through Tony and Tia.
The novel follows a fairly conventional plot. The two main characters are orphans searching for their home and people. In order to find both, they must go on a journey filled with perils. Before they even begin their quest, they have to escape the orphanage and find their way to Father O’Day’s mission. During the journey, they encounter several more obstacles to overcome: being arrested by a greedy sheriff, being hunted by superstitious townsfolk, and being chased by unscrupulous villains. After several near escapes and chases, and with the help of Father O’Day, they eventually find their way to Witch Mountain, where the rest of their people have settled.
Although Key provides a simple plot, his settings and the societies through which the two children move are slightly more complex. Tony and Tia have been living in a run-down neighborhood in a tenement building. It is an ugly world that they leave with the social worker, only to arrive at the more unpleasant world of Hackett House. The orphanage is ruled by the grim Mrs. Grindley, who locks them out of the library and is always inclined to believe the worst. Tia’s Star Box is stolen soon after they arrive, and Tony has to fight a bully armed with a homemade blade in order to get it back. When the children are allowed a trip to Heron Lake, it is a run-down camp, obviously used for...
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Escape to Witch Mountain probably became more famous, and more widely read, after it was made into a Walt Disney film in 1975. The motion picture Return from Witch Mountain (1978), once more featuring Tony and Tia, was more a sequel to this film version than to the original book. The written sequel was also based on the motion-picture sequel and not on the original book.
Escape to Witch Mountain is clearly science fiction, but it is also in some ways a work of social realism. The tenement situation and the dismal orphanage are real-world occurrences, even if many of the activities of Tony and Tia are not. The prejudice that the two children encounter is also part of the real world. This mixture of social realism, along with the contemporary setting, makes the book different from what is usually considered young adult science fiction, such as those works written by Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein. Placing the alien or the fantastic in the mundane world is Key’s way of showing the dark side of human nature. It is a theme that he pursued in other works as well, such as The Forgotten Door (1965), a winner of the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award. In other works, such as The Magic Meadow (1975) and Flight to the Lonesome Place (1971), his characters flee the hardships of society by escaping to magical places. This combination of the fantastic and the realistic makes Key’s stories thought-provoking as well as entertaining.