Wishing with Arithmetic: Edward Eager’s Half Magic

Edward Eager’s first success, a play called Pudding Full of Plums, came while he was still attending Harvard University. Inspired, he quit school and headed to New York and Broadway, enjoying a mildly successful career as a playwright, lyricist and screenwriter. As a decided sideline, he turned to children’s books after the birth of his son Fritz in 1942, and his realization that other than the Oz books (yay!) and the Nesbit books (yay yay!) he simply did not have enough worlds of wonder to share with his son, and this was something he could decidedly change. This turned out to be an even more inspired choice: although Eager’s plays and screenwriting are largely forgotten today (and, as I found, incorrectly listed in Wikipedia), most of his children’s books remain in print, and have inspired in their turn certain comments on this blog eagerly begging for an Eager reread.

Look. After awhile, the puns in these children’s books are going to get to you. Anyway, here we go, with the first of the Eager books still in print: Half Magic.

Eager’s inspirations are clear from the very first pages of Half Magic, which begins by bemoaning the dearth of available children’s fiction and the issues with libraries, which do let you check out ten—ten! books in the summer but only four—four! of them can be fiction. (I want you to feel the pain here that Eager clearly did.) Worse, sometimes, the titles of the non-fiction books can be decidedly misleading. Fortunately the characters, three sisters and one brother, have just discovered the works of Edith Nesbit, the greatest children’s writer ever (an opinion they share with Eager). Which leads them to wish that magic could happen to them.

One magical coin later, and they have the ability to have any wish they want. Well, technically, as they soon figure out, half a wish. It does not take them too long to work out how to get around this—just double up the wishes. Of course, that requires remembering to double up the wishes—something that can be difficult to do when angry and unable to think straight. And even when they do remember to phrase the wishes correctly, this does not always go well. Sir Lancelot, for one, is not thrilled to find the four kids interfering with his quests. He’d rather handle Morgan le Fay on his own, without the assistance of potentially evil magic, thank you very much. And although all of their wishes are fulfilled at the great tournament of King Arthur, it turns out that this may not be a very good thing.

(And for those of you wondering just how the kids have managed to understand the archaic middle or more likely old English of King Arthur’s court, even assuming King Arthur spoke Anglo-Saxon at all and not some form of old Celtic or Latin, I will only say, hush! Magic! It’s like a Star Trek universal translator thingy. Sorta.)

Merlin also warns them that the magical coin has a limited number of wishes, and traveling to King Arthur’s court has drained the coin of much of its power, so they will have to be careful. This is good advice, and, as in the nature of pretty much all stories about magical wishes, almost immediately and completely ignored. They are, after all, kids, and Eager is, after all, writing humor, which invariably means things have to go wrong, and often do, in a decidedly silly way.

For all its silliness, Half Magic does have moments of depth, particularly in a scene where Jane, the oldest child, who can still remember her father, who died at some unspecified time in the past, contemplates the possibility of getting a stepfather, and thus, she thinks, the possibility of losing her father entirely. It’s realistic, and slightly heartbreaking, and handled well, even if the final resolution seems a bit too facile (this is, after all, a happy book.) Katherine, too, has some moments of self-understanding. Mark and Martha have less to do, with Mark never really growing much beyond “the boy,” and Martha staying in the role of the youngest, although a surprisingly insightful youngest, despite her issues with math and understandable desire that fractions vanish completely.

If much of this sounds rather reminiscent of an Edith Nesbit book, well, yes, it is: this is essentially Nesbit’s own setup: a warm family environment with limited parental involvement and a touch of magic that does not really go the way the characters think it will go. Even the magic system is pretty much identical to that found in Five Children and It and The Story of the Amulet, as is the general narrative tone. But if Eager does not develop his own system, he does develop his own plots, giving a sense that these really are entirely new adventures that just happened to have happened to children who happened to be reading Nesbit books and are enjoying the fun of almost but not quite stepping into one.

Half Magic was written in the 1950s and set in the 1920s; not surprisingly, some of the gender references can seem a little dated. The only people who faint, for instance, are all girls and women. But Half Magic also presents something that we tend to forget really did happen in the 1920s: a positive image of a single working mother dedicated to both her career and her four children.

Doing both takes considerable work on everyone’s part: the kids end up doing more chores than they want to (this is a strong subplot, since cleaning the dishes and dusting takes valuable time away from adventuring, something we can all sympathize with) and even with that, and Jane the oldest generally showing responsibility, the children’s mother still has to hire household help to supervise the kids. (It’s not a very happy relationship on either side.) The mother also voices common and sympathetic resentments: she has been unable to get a promotion at her job (it’s implied this is because of her gender), and she was unable to follow her childhood dream of being a bareback rider. And of course her belief that she is going insane (thanks to half-seeing and half-believing the magic of the coin) doesn’t help. Nonetheless, it’s a helpful reminder that women did not suddenly pop into the U.S. workplace after the women’s movement.

Thus, even without the depths of the Nesbit books, Half Magic does offer a touch of its own social commentary. Not much, and if you are looking for depths, you won’t find it in this generally fluffy book. But if you are just looking for a fluffy, light read with a decidedly happy ending and plenty of jokes, this may be the perfect book for that occasion.

Having wished for a cookie and only finding half a cookie left in the box, Mari Ness can deeply sympathize with the protagonists of this book. She lives in central Florida.


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