British author Mary Norton, perhaps best known for creating The Borrowers (coming up next in these rereads) spent a happy childhood in the English countryside. She later claimed that her shortsightedness had a strong influence on her work: rather than looking at far away things, she focused on tree roots and grasses, wondering what small creatures might be hiding there. In 1927 she married Robert Norton and lived with him in Portugal until the outbreak of World War II. The war separated the family and forced Norton to return to England, shuttling between the dangers of wartime London and periods in the country. It was this background that shaped her first books for children, The Magic Bed Knob and Bonfires and Broomsticks, later combined into a single book, Bed-Knob and Broomstick.
As a kid, I found myself immediately annoyed by the first paragraph, “Carey was about your age, Charles a little younger, and Paul only six,” partly because I was only seven, and mostly because I wanted to know how on earth the book knew how old I was? What if I was really old? Like, you know, ten? Or worse, twelve. Or even a grown-up? Sometimes grown-ups—usually librarians—opened up kids’ books. Usually this was to tell me whether or not I could or should read the book, advice I generally and cheerfully ignored, but it could happen.
Since I was still at the age where I finished every book I opened, regardless of quality or appropriateness, I plunged on. The three children soon encounter the ladylike Miss Price who has just hurt her ankle by falling off a broomstick. (See, Quidditch really is dangerous.) That is the first indication of something very important: Miss Price is actually a witch. Well, technically, she’s studying to be a witch. As her broomstick fall indicates, she still has quite a lot of studying to go, since, in a nice touch, witchcraft—especially wicked witchcraft—is one of those things you really have to study and focus on, and Miss Price has previously been just a little too busy with various things to do any real study.
This in turn makes it rather difficult for her to know exactly what to do with the children who have discovered her secret, especially after the revelation that Paul has some abilities in that area as well. After a brief discussion, however, she agrees to more or less bribe them with an enchanted Bed Knob that will take them to wherever they want to go. Their first stop: war torn London, because Paul desperately misses his mother. This naturally creates a lot of confusion—no one expects to see a large iron bed in a London street under a blackout—and arrest and imprisonment. (Before you start thinking this is too harsh, remember, this is wartime.)
Somewhat shaken, everyone agrees to follow this up with a nice trip to the South Seas to see coral reefs. (Yay!) This leads them into an unfortunate encounter with stereotypical island cannibals (rather less yay, on multiple levels). The only good thing about this second bit is that it encourages Miss Price to come to the rescue, discovering her inner magic. Unfortunately, the encounter also sends them back home dripping with salt water—a circumstance they are unable to explain. Their aunt pointedly reminds them that they are not her children, and since the entire episode has meant the loss of a maid, the aunt sends them back to the dangers of London.
Sidenote on the cannibals: It’s not just that they are stereotypical and the entire encounter is dull, dull, dull, it’s that, if I’m counting correctly, this is Encounter Number Six with Island Cannibals so far during these rereads, which is approaching, no kidding, the number of times the Emerald City was attacked or Ozma was kidnapped. And at least there, I could see why everyone wanted to take over the Emerald City or capture Ozma—quite a lot of money and power are involved.
But how on earth does every single group of time travelling children just happen to end up on a tropical island that just happens to have cannibals who just happen to be hungry?
It’s not just the stereotyping, or that this is potentially offensive to various island cultures, or that all of these islands, whether off the coast of Africa, in the Caribbean, or in the Pacific, are all terribly similar, but that it is boring.
But what I also don’t get is why the fascination in the first place. Oh, yes, I get the fascination with islands. I get the fascination with pirates. But the cannibals are baffling me. And it’s not all the influence of Nesbit (who did influence Norton here and later, as we saw, Edward Eager) since some of this arose independently. The assumption that all tropical islands contain cannibals? Inserted as a warning against travelling to such islands? I don’t know, but of all the things I expected to find when doing these rereads, lots of cannibals was not among them.
That was a too long sidenote. Anyway!
The second part of the book picks up two years later. By now, the older children have almost convinced their younger brother—and themselves—that everything was just a dream, however salty and real the results. But when Miss Price advertises that she is willing to take in children for the summer, they eagerly head back. Initially, they are disappointed to find that Miss Price has seemingly given up magic for good—but only seemingly. A short discussion of the value of learning history, and they are off to the reign of Charles II. (Which they could certainly stand to learn more about.)
Here the book becomes a little awkward as the point of view shifts from the children to that of a 16th century necromancer, Emelius, and then back to the children again when they all return to the 20th century, a place Emelius desperately wants to see, and then back to Emelius, and...you get the point. The shifts in viewpoint are often awkward, if the plot is amusing: teaching the children about the 16th century is moderately tricky; teaching Emelius about the 20th is definitely tricky—he ends up loving baths, and in particular, hot water, but cars terrify him.
The plotline is awkward for other reasons, notably that Emelius is initially not skeptical enough about magic, given that he has been trained to know that magic—especially the type of magic he practices—is all a fake. The bittersweet ending, which reads very differently to me now, is equally awkward. World War II plays such a background role here (though still mentioned) that as a child, I didn’t realize that in many ways, Miss Price was fleeing an extremely dangerous world: I merely thought that she and Emelius were choosing to head back to a place that burnt witches and necromancers, which struck me as an exceedingly strange thing to do, especially since that place had no hot and cold running water and no marmalade, which, horrors. But my adult realization that she was in fact only exchanging one dangerous world for another makes me shudder in quite a different way. Because by vanishing back to the past, Miss Price is essentially sending the three children back to the dangers of wartime London unprotected—not to mention leaving the very magical Paul with no one to guide him in his new abilities. Not to mention that I really have no idea what is going on with the last couple of sentences, unless ghosts are as real as witches, or Miss Price was lying all the time.
My reservations about the ending and the cannibals aside, I can still recommend the book, mostly for its willingness to raise difficult ethical questions. For instance, is it fair to use magic in a gardening competition—when you are competing against people who have access to resources (for example, greenhouses) that you don’t? Can magic—should magic—be used in wartime conditions? What would happen to an army turned into white mice? Do even Nazis deserve that? This a book with flaws, and many of them, but just enough magic to give readers a hint for what was to soon come from Norton’s typewriter.
Mari Ness plans to use her magic wishes to travel to cannibal-free tropical islands, thank you very much. She lives in central Florida.