When Magic Is a Bit of a Letdown: Magic or Not?

Edward Eager’s fifth novel in his Magic series, Magic or Not, is his take, more or less, on Edith Nesbit’s The Wonderful Garden, that children’s book where neither readers nor characters could be entirely sure if magic was happening, or not. As in The Wonderful Garden, Eager’s characters—twin brother and sister James and Laura, neighbors Kip and Lydia, and, to an extent, somewhat annoying neighbor Gordy—spend their time at least trying to make magic work. Where The Wonderful Garden worked with the magic of flowers, Magic or Not uses a magic wishing well. The magic—if it is magic—tends to work only when the children have laudable motives. And the magic—if it is magic—can be easily explained away by coincidence or the well meaning attempts of humans to make everything look like magic. And, like The Wonderful Garden, I find it oddly unsatisfying.

It’s difficult to pinpoint just why. The book, after all, offers a happy ending for everyone. Well perhaps not for Mrs. Gordon T. Witherspoon, who has lost at least some of the respect of her neighbors as well as a potentially valuable antique desk, and will have to endure—gasp—the presence of a nearby elementary school. Let us all take a moment to pity her. It is set very near the place where I went to high school, sparking vivid green memories. It has descriptions of wonderful food. The characters are also mostly likeable enough, and are more distinct than those in The Wonderful Garden. Optimistic Laura believes in magic; skeptical Kip does not; artistic Lydia has a somewhat problematic home life and can therefore be a bit touchy; James wants to be a writer; lonely Gordy is indulged by his mother, but needs some social skills.

Nonetheless, the characters for the most part lack the distinctive quirks of other Eager characters – Martha’s resentment at her role as the youngest, Eliza’s bossiness, Katherine’s love of poetry, and so on. And perhaps more tellingly, only two of the characters—Lydia and Gordy—have any real problems to overcome, and thus, a need for magic, and Gordy has only a very small role in the book. James, Laura and Kip have no problems except a desire to believe that magic is real, and the closest thing to a real problem for them is whether or not a new school will be built nearby. Even the usual problems and fears associated with moving to a new place—the start of the novel for James and Laura—are glossed over, with both of them immediately finding friends and fitting in. Lydia’s problems – she lives alone with her grandmother and is considered “strange,” and is also afraid of horses, so afraid she rides horses to ensure no one will find out, are rather easily solved. Gordy’s are not even apparent until the end of the book, in a rather nice scene that demonstrates just how lucky Laura and James are – they cannot even conceive of a world where they might not have friends or fun. But that very demonstration just reminds us that these two kids don’t really need magic, or anything else – they have one of the most contented, protected and fortunate lives I can remember from most kids’ books. And with the possible exception of Lydia, all of these kids are well off – but lack even the isolation and other social problems faced by the kids in Harriet the Spy.

The lack of real problems is not necessarily a flaw in a kid’s book (read many of my previous entries on this site) but it does, in this case, rob the book of a sense of urgency and purpose, not to mention character growth for anyone. Lydia does realize that she has some skill as an artist; Gordy does sorta learn how to make friends, and Laura learns that some people have real problems, but that’s about it. And the lack of unquestionably real magic also robs the book of the over the top moments in previous Eager books. Oh, the book contains a couple of small bits with witches and ghosts (who may not be real), and a completely accidental kidnapping definitely has its fun moments. But somehow none of it manages to match the scenes of earlier books.

And, although all of the magic can be carefully explained, it is somehow even less believable than the real magic Eager played with earlier. As implausible as the book’s final ghost story is (and it’s pretty implausible), it seems somehow even less plausible that, as Eager strongly suggests, the entire “ghost” and story was faked by various adults in the book. I freely admit that the “ghost,” even as ghosts go, is not exactly the most believable ghost you will encounter in reality or in books. But where Nesbit had carefully set up a situation where I could believe that a group of adults would happily stage a similar situation to entertain the kids, Eager fails to do the same here. The adults responsible for the “ghost” have no real reason to create a ghost – in fact, two of the adults would have strong reasons not to. It involves a conspiracy of far too many people who have never been shown to know one another that well, and in the end, I cannot blame Laura for deciding that the adult conspiracy is more implausible than an appearance of a surprisingly chatty and above all solid “ghost.”

I’m all for exquisitely subtle magic in tales, or questions of just what magic is, or the exploration of the fine line between magic and reality and wishes and dreams. But still, even with the humor, the name dropping of various very good books (including one of Eager’s own), the way that the characters are aware of the rules of magic and thus try to keep them, and the solid forming of friendships, this one books seems, as I noted, vaguely dissatisfying, and worth a read probably only for Eager fans.

Mari Ness prefers her ghosts to be completely unsolid and inexplicable. She lives in central Florida, in a house that seems to be, for now, entirely ghost free, although now that she’s typed that, she expects an unreal ghost to appear at any minute.


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