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.
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.
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.