Thu
Oct 25 2012 2:00pm

When Abandoning Your Formula Goes Wrong: Edward Eager’s The Well-Wishers

A reread of The Well-Wishers by Edward EagerIn the sixth book in his “Magic” series, The Well-Wishers, a direct sequel to his fifth book, Magic or Not, Edward Eager decided to try something new: writing in the first person. But, with multiple young protagonists to follow, Eager also decides to allow all of his young protagonists to have a turn at telling the story, or, I should say, stories, as once again his young protagonists try to wish other people well by wishing on a magic well. (I will give you all a moment to groan at the pun.) The narrators usually introduce themselves (“This is James,”); in the few cases where they don’t, the narrator can eventually be figured out through context, if not voice. And right there I’ve hinted at just one of the problems with this book.

In a related problem, as in the previous book, some of the children (notably Laura) believe in magic, and some do not. Which means that some of the chapters telling us about supposedly “magical” events, none of which feel magical in the slightest, are narrated by kids who don’t believe in magic. If in the last book I was already struggling to believe that anything magical was going on (if also struggling to believe that a group of adults would go to that much effort to create a ghost just to ensure that the children would continue to believe in magic), I am really struggling to believe that anything magical other than the occasional coincidence is happening here, not helped when about half of the narrators don’t think that any magic is occurring at all. The end result: a book supposedly about magic—if more of a mundane sort of helping other people out magic—with a decidedly unmagical feel.

Admittedly, in some cases the first person narrative viewpoint serves quite well, particularly when it works as a sharp reminder that kids often perceive considerably more than adults realize. This is especially true when Gordy, the wealthy but socially inept kid, takes over the story. As a teacher rather belatedly realizes, Gordy has ended up in the slow class not because of a lack of ability, but because his well intentioned but overly busy and snobbish mother has been sending him to a series of private schools, switching schools so frequently that Gordy has never been able to make any friends, nor learned how to communicate well through speech.

This, combined with Gordy’s natural shyness and social ineptness, has led him to hate school and therefore do badly in it. It doesn’t help that Gordy really can’t see the point of fractions, let alone make improper fractions behave properly. (I deeply sympathize.) But his viewpoint chapter shows that he’s well aware of how his teachers and peers regard him (and what his friends think of his snobbish mother), that it hurts and he doesn’t know know what to do about it. Gordy’s chapters, which include a story where he helps out another child who has also been failed by adults and has difficulty communicating, are the strongest points of the book.

Unfortunately, Gordy’s chapters also highlight another issue with the book: the kids all know that the other kids will be writing in the book, and know that the other kids will be reading what they are writing. Gordy even admits this, and then writes things that he tells us he doesn’t want the other kids to know about. Which would all be fine if this were a private journal that nobody else would be reading, at least in theory (as in Harriet the Spy style) but this is a group journal.

This becomes particularly problematic when Dicky, the local bully transformed to better friend, starts talking. The text has established that Dicky is sort of making friends with the rest of the group, especially now that he’s transformed, but the text also establishes that Dicky can see what the kids previously wrote about him. And yet, he and the others barely react to hearing the honest thoughts of their friends – the same friends who are busily writing, immediately after penning these thoughts, oooh, I hope the others don’t find out this is what I think about them. THEN DON’T WRITE THIS DOWN IN A JOINT DIARY. Honestly. And we’re expected to think these kids, even Gordy, are bright.

Anyway. In a related problem, with the possible exceptions of Gordy and Dicky, the narrative voices are not that distinct. Even the artistic Lydia and the optimistic, warm hearted Laura end up sounding very familiar—I was jolted out of what I thought was a Laura chapter when I realized, no, whoa, this is Lydia—and James and Kip really sound alike, except when James, in a decidedly odd moment, concludes his narrative in a nostalgic and surprisingly adult tone. He has started to date girls and think of the future, so it’s not entirely implausible – except that in both books, up until that point, Kip has been shown to be the more mature, thoughtful boy, even if he isn’t dating.

Speaking of Kip, however, he has the unfortunate luck to be the narrator for the novel’s worst point – a chapter describing the arrival of a black family to the otherwise completely white neighborhood.

Not that Eager ever uses the word “black.” Or, for that matter, African-American or Negro. Instead we are told that many people in the community do not want the new family to move in. A few pages later the words “hate” and “prejudice” enter the chapter, spoken by an adult; a few pages after that, we learn that, perhaps thanks to “magic,” the house they are moving into just happens to be on land previously owned by a runaway slave saved by the Underground Railroad, and was just waiting for the “right people to move in,” too.

Er. Yes. Moving on.

Concerned that the arrival of the black family will lower property values in the area, various groups plan to greet the new family with a friendly letter saying they aren’t wanted, but offering to buy the house from them. (Snobby Mrs. Witherspoon is against this, not out of racial tolerance, but because it isn’t respectable.) The various good adults and kids in the book, Mrs. Witherspoon excepted, all sign a petition welcoming the family to the town to counter this, and the kids decide to organize a welcome party, complete with flowers and plants, partly to plant a garden for the new family, mostly to prevent the unfriendly delegation from arriving. The kids gather. Plants are carried. And little Deborah, upon seeing the family:

“Oh,” she said. “Is that all it was?”

The black family is all properly grateful that a garden has been planted for them and doesn’t ask anyone to be arrested for trespassing.

Okay, look. This is all a lovely, lovely message, and full kudos to Edward Eager for showing us that yes, racial prejudice also appeared in wealthy Connnecticut neighborhoods and not just in the Deep South, if often masked as conversations about “property values.” Kudos for noting that these conversations could and did happen in Christian churches. Full kudos for showing that the response to these prejudices would and did greatly differ, from people willing and eager to stand up for doing the right thing, to people like the actress who really just does not want to get involved (she does) and the banker worried about losing customers. And full kudos for trying to do the right thing here.

Minus several points for the ham-handedness of this entire narrative, the not so slight problem that the black kids in this family never form part of the main social group (Eager sorta dodges this issue by making them all younger, but that leads to the question of why he dodged the issue, instead of having a 12 year old black kid join the social group) and never get to wish on the “magic” well, the auugh of the next chapter where the six year old black kid needs the help of a white kid, the reformed white bully, and a white teacher to learn how important friends are, and the simultaneous attempt to tell readers that differences in skin color aren’t important while showing readers that they could matter very much indeed.

And, the not so subtle problem—although I can’t blame Eager for this one—that although this plot line and the follow up forms a large part of the book, the illustrations do not show a single black person at all.

(For contrast, consider E. L. Konigsberg’s Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, another 1960s book which also carefully avoids any reference to skin color in the text, but shows a black girl, Jennifer, and a white girl, Elizabeth, in the illustrations.)

It’s all the more striking because elsewhere Eager manages some very subtle yet sharp social commentary indeed, reminding his neighbors that even in this very wealthy Connecticut (and most of the adult characters are either wealthy or artists) not everyone is wealthy, and that this income disparity can cause issues. Not that a high income is the cure for all evils—see, Gordy’s chapters—but living in poverty, or even comparative poverty, in a wealthy neighborhood, as Dicky does, causes stress. Another chapter evenhandedly discusses the competing needs of urban development and land preservation, noting that this is not a simple situation. (The resolution to that story is, but that’s another issue.)

But even apart from this moment, to be honest, despite its short length, this was the first of the Magic series that was a struggle to get through; I kept turning to a comparatively plot-driven and thrilling article on the fecundity of Siderastrea corals. It’s the first disappointment of the series, and the only one that I would recommend skipping.


Before the comments dissolve into a conversation about corals, Mari Ness needs to note that she does not know nearly as much about corals as that sidenote would suggest. She currently lives in central Florida.

1 comment
Barbara Gordon
1. bmlg
A really minor point, but there is one reference to Jennifer's race in Jennifer Hecate Macbeth, when her mother is described as the only black person at the school assembly. That's deep into the book, though.

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