An Enchanted Summer

Talisman. With magic formulae, Ya c Ali at top right. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Half Magic
by Edward Eager.
Drawings by N M Bodecker.
Puffin Books 1968 (1954).

It was fine weather, warm and blue-skied and full of possibilities, and the day began well, with a glint of something metal in a crack in the sidewalk. ‘Ooh, a lucky nickel!’ Jane said, and scooped it into her pocket with the rest of her allowance, still jingling there unspent.

Chapter 1, ‘How It Began’

Thus begins a period of enchantment for four young siblings from Toledo, Ohio, a week when they learn the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for” but also the understanding of when to give it all up. Along the way we the readers gain enjoyment from a narrative that appeals both to young imaginations and to maturer minds who love witty yet also wise writing.

Jane, who finds the talisman, is the oldest: a little hot-headed and bossy but otherwise admirable. Mark is the only boy, around eleven years old, and fairly pragmatic. Katharine is the most bookish of the lot (though they’re all avid fans of the nearest library) and often spouting literary references. Martha is the youngest, easily bored but surprisingly full of sensible ideas.

Their mother Alison, working as a “woman’s journalist” to keep the family afloat in 1920s Toledo after the death of the children’s father, fears for her sanity when odd inexplicable things start happening, and dares not get too fond of the funny but nice Mr Smith who rescues this very 20th-century damsel in distress. All is made more complex by the existence of the weird half magic which the “lucky nickel” bestows on whoever possesses it. And worries begin to grow that its magic will eventually wear out.

Silhouette of Harlech Castle © C A Lovegrove

It was the size of a nickel and the shape of a nickel and the colour of a nickel, but it wasn’t a nickel.

It was worn thin — probably by centuries of time, Jane told herself. And instead of a buffalo or a Liberty head, it bore strange signs.

In this, the first of a series, Edward Eager was drawing on a number of influences, several of which the author and even the bookish Katharine actually cite. The magic talisman, which is evidently of Middle Eastern origin, is partly indebted to the magical object which features in Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet; at the start of Half Magic the children are very taken by the same author’s The Enchanted Castle. This eventually leads them to want to visit Camelot, in an amusing episode which openly acknowledges its debts to T H White’s The Once and Future King, to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Sidney Lanier’s The Boy’s King Arthur.

The farcical feel of the events in this episode is present in all those experienced by the children in turn, continuing with the near slapstick resulting from Martha’s wish not to be forced to watch a 1924 silent film (Sandra, starring the once celebrated Barbara LaMarr). And yet the whole novel feels very grounded: the children for example are very real, with well defined characters, even when they seem to run rings round the unimaginative adults. The neighbourhood is based on real streets in what’s known as Toledo’s historic Old West End, with West Bancroft Road, Virginia Street, Maplewood Avenue and Monroe Street all name-checked. This is clearly an area the author knew well from his childhood, possibly when skating around the sidewalks.

Barbara LaMarr in ‘Sandra’ (1924)

An accomplished playwright, Eager writes very comfortably for children: the story was evidently originally concocted for his son Fritz, whose name is constantly hinted at when Carrie the cat is granted the power of speech. And Eager is also able to comfortably juggle the needs of two audiences simultaneously: he never talks down to his child readers, taking them instead into his confidence; but he also addresses the adults, as when he tells us that

The four children generally divided all grown-ups into four classes. There were the ones like Miss Bick and Uncle Edwin and Aunt Grace and Mrs Hudson who — frankly, and cruel as it might be to say it — just weren’t good with children at all. There was nothing to do about these, the four children felt, except be as polite as possible and hope they would go away soon.

Chapter 6: ‘What Happened to Jane’

Then there were the adults who “always seemed to want to pretend they were children, too”; those who treated children as though the youngsters were also grown-up (“Many of the four children’s school teachers fell into this class”); and finally there were the adults who felt there wasn’t any reason why children and grown-ups “couldn’t get along perfectly well and naturally together, and even occasionally communicate…”

I’ve had this novel recommended to me for a while and now I get why: not just the fantasy and the whimsy and the Arthurian and Arabian Nights references but particularly the intelligent and, yes, sensitive writing — as when Jane is conflicted about accepting Mr Smith as a possible suitor for her mother Alison, and Alison’s own reluctance about falling in love when she fears she’s losing her wits. In this the influence of Edith Nesbit’s children’s fiction shines through. And I see there are sequels…

This edition will have been slightly adapted for British postwar readers, though why words like ‘sidewalk’ would have needed to be replaced by ‘pavement’ when they presented no problem in US movies is curious. Luckily the original N M Bodecker drawings have been retained and they add to the charm that this “Enchanted Summer” casts over the reader.

23 thoughts on “An Enchanted Summer

  1. A wonderful review, Chris. This series has long been one of my favorites, with its unconventional magic and great characters. What’s more, Eager introduced me to E Nesbit, whose books I’d never heard of.

    I think this is the best book of the series, but they’re all charming. I hope you’re able to find the others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally get it now, Lizzie, and thank you so much for pressing this title on me. It’s very clear to me that Nesbit and Eager shared the same instinctive knack of understanding what goes through children’s minds: “There is only one way [to understand children]: to remember what you thought and felt and liked and hated when you yourself were a child,” as Nesbit herself wrote; “There is no other way.” Eager, like Nesbit, was probably also one of those children “disguised by grown-up bodies” (as she saw herself).

      I found my secondhand copy on a recent (and all too brief) visit to Hay-on-Wye and its bookshops, but unfortunately this was the only Eager book I could spot amongst the vintage children’s books.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely review! Glad you enjoyed this one. I remember liking it very much but the details have gone now and I didn’t get to the other books in the series. That he doesn’t write down to his younger audience is something that appeals to me as well. Thanks for reminding me of these.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mallika! As Lizzie above says, Eager’s fantasy introduced her to Nesbit, but it was the reverse for me: loving Nesbit suggested that I might enjoy Eager since he rated her highly. If I spot any of the sequels I’m sure I’ll pick them up.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I wonder if he was also aware of the first few Narnia books, published from 1950 onwards: four children, magical getaways, talking animals and so on. Also trying to detect if there’s a faint trace of Oz there too, but his language is completely different to both Lewis and Baum, I fancy, more sympathetic to the point of view his child characters.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Eager’s books are a worthwhile journey for any lover of children’s fantasy novels. I can’t imagine them without the Bodecker illustrations — I love their distinctive style and find them popping up in my memory as I think about this story. I also think this one is his best, but if you venture further I’m sure you’ll enjoy the others too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I shall definitely look out for others of his, Lory, especially as the order doesn’t seem to matter so much as I gather they jump around in time. I’m now surprised they aren’t as well known by, let alone popular with, a British reading public—this one, for example, has such brilliant writing and invention. And I agree, I can’t imagine this text without Bodecker’s drawings either.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Books that are written with both a children’s and adult readership in mind always appeal to me and I enjoyed this review very much. I’ve never read anything by this author but you’ve definitely piqued my interest. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apparently this is not only the first but the best of Eager’s children’s books, though that’s not to denigrate the sequels—I certainly think it’s in your remit to seek out a copy, Anne, and help it gain a new audience!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We love Half Magic–my whole family–and I refer to it almost weekly, as the way I order groceries almost always involves some kind of “half magic” figuring. I order two bottles of different brands to make sure I get at least one bottle of something I really need, like ketchup. When I get two bottles, which happens, I just say, “well, I was figuring on the half magic.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah, I get that, Jeanne! The logic of half-magic wishing also reminds me of the famous Bilbo quote: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” It does my head in every time I think I’ve got a handle on the logic in these statements! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. They’re the people who take St Paul’s injunction too literally: When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. ‘Putting away childish things’ to us I think would be like a living death. Don’t do it, Ola! Save those childish things! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I was never a fan of St Paul’s rigidity 😛 I intend to care for my inner child as long as I live!

        To be fair, though, we all seem to be so obsessed with adolescence and adulthood that it often takes having children of one’s own to rediscover the wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm of childhood 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I was very lucky and grew up reading Edward Eager (and Nesbit too). I love his books so much, and agree that Half Magic is the best, but they are all good, and I especially love Time Garden, Seven-Day Magic, and Knight’s Castle. The books are not all about the same group of children — this crew only appears again in Magic by the Lake, IIRC.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I shall definitely be looking out for the remaining titles, Jean, even without the presence of the lively quartet of kids in this the first of the series. (I do remember reading that they reappear in the immediate sequel.) Half Magic surprised me by how good it was, and made me wonder why it isn’t as well known here in the UK.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s funny what makes it across the Atlantic and what doesn’t — or sometimes it goes by Commonwealth. My SIL is Canadian and adored Enid Blyton stories, which are practically unavailable in the US, even though they would have been very popular — at least I should think so, given how beloved the Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Belden, and all sorts of similar stories have been.

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