Old-School Review: Half Magic

By Edward Eager [LibraryThingGoodreads]

It’s shaping up to be a perfectly boring summer for Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha, until they find a strange coin on the sidewalk that grants wishes…sort of. The coin grants half wishes, so you must wish for twice as much as you want, lest you end up with half a talking cat or half a safe journey home. Figuring out how to double most wishes is simple, but when it comes to finding a happy ending for themselves and their mother, the siblings need something more than just a little arithmetic.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for…oh, probably about two decades now. Seriously, I’ve noticed it in libraries and bookstores all my life and just never got around to picking it up until recently. And it is just as charming as it always looked! I tend to really enjoy mid-century children’s fantasy, with its warm, conversational tone and interesting glimpse into a different era of childhood. This book, published in 1954 but set in the 20s, made me long for streetcars and silent movies and, I don’t know, pinafores and stuff. The prose and the mood were just absolutely lovely.

I really liked the hook of the story – the half-wishes – and I also enjoyed all of the children, who are all very quickly captured in a few words. For example, “Martha was the youngest, and very difficult.” It has the charm of a child repeating what he or she has heard adults say about a sibling, and yet tells you exactly what age Martha is and what her disposition is like. Perfect! I was a bit annoyed that Mark, the only boy, seems to be a lot more together than any of his sisters, but I tried to let it slide as a product of its time.

There are a couple of other elements that I had to let slide as products of their time as well. At one point the children are lost in the desert and encounter “Achmed the Arab,” who promptly kidnaps them. Achmed is a broad and unflattering stereotype, but at least Mark points out (albeit in a clumsy, white-man’s-burden-y fashion) that Achmed’s claim that the coin belongs to his people might be true, and “You know how people used to be unjust to natives in the olden days.” The book is trying, at least. I had a similar reaction to their mother, who we’re told is a stubborn and capable single mother and career woman, but who is completely unable to cope with the idea of magic, to the point of it affecting her mental health, while her love interest takes it all in stride. And while the children think she really wants to be editor-in-chief of the paper where she works, what she really wants, it turns out, is to get married and stay home with the kids. The example with Achmed is certainly more potentially damaging today, but both aspects of the book rubbed me the wrong way. But again, their products of the time, and there’s not much to be done about them besides pointing out that they exist and avoiding them in modern books.

My major quibble with the book that was not an element of the 1950s was the resolution. The kids’ mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Smith, who knows all about the magic, proposes, but she turns him down because, having seen glimpses of the various wishes, she thinks she’s going crazy. Since the children want them to get married, they make a series of increasingly dumber wishes to make their mother believe in the magic, but it’s Mr. Smith who finally makes the wish that works and leads to their happy ending. Which annoys me because it’s the grown man in a book about three little girls and a boy saving the day, but also because he’s not the protagonist. The kids are the protagonists, and I wanted them to figure it out, not some random dude!

Aside from this rather annoying conclusion, though, Half Magic is, as I’ve said, an extremely charming book, and makes me want to read the rest of Eager’s work (aside from The Well-Wishers, which I’ve read many times). Four cupcakes.

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