When I read Steel Magic, I wondered rather plaintively if Norton would (or could) give her girl character a less trammeled role in the next book. It’s true that Sara gets to be a cat, which is cool, but she doesn’t make her own decisions. She’s told what to do at every step, and she has to perform her assigned tasks under much more challenging physical conditions than either of her brothers.
Octagon Magic is, in a lot of ways, the answer to my wish. It’s the first straight-up girls’ book I’ve read in the Norton canon, and it’s part of a sea change in how Norton seems to have perceived her intended audience. By 1967, the Witch World series was well under way, and the Free Trader/Forerunner universe was opening up to strong and proactive female characters. She’s not writing boys-only adventures any longer. She’s writing for girls, too.
Lorrie Mallard, aged eleven and a half, lives in a world of women. Boys are aliens and enemies. She’s kind of an alien herself: She’s Canadian, her parents are dead, her grandmother has been raising her but has gone off to England to recover from surgery, and she’s living with her working-woman aunt in a foreign country, the United States. One day while being pursued by a pack of boys, she finds refuge in a magical place: the local octagon house, also known as the witch’s house.
I had not realized that octagon houses were as much of a thing as they were. They were all the rage in the US and Canada around the 1850s (which is relevant to this novel), and there are multiple examples in Ohio where Andre Norton lived for much of her life. There’s even been an episode of Ghost Hunters set in the one in Kentucky, and the one in Washington, DC hosts ghost tours—Norton might have known the latter during her tenure at the Library of Congress.
The one Lorrie ventures into is owned by an elderly lady dressed in Victorian finery, her equally Victorian-style Black housekeeper, and a small black kitten who sometimes serves as a guide to the magic of the house. The stately Miss Ashemeade teaches Lorrie the art of needlework and oversees a series of life lessons, most of which are taught with the aid of the kitten and an elaborate dollhouse that resides in a secret room and is the image of the house in its earlier days.
The dollhouse is even more magical than the larger house. Guided by the kitten to open certain drawers in its base, Lorrie uncovers a series of secrets. When she’s mysteriously motivated to ride the rocking horse that stands beside it, she’s transported back in time to the house’s past. The horse becomes a real horse, and she meets a young woman named Lotta, who lives in the house.
Each adventure in time travel presents a new aspect of the town’s past. She meets a pair of starving children from the poorest part of town, and helps Lotta rescue them and take them into the house. Later she does the same with a Black woman and her disabled child who have escaped from slavery. And finally she persuades the strong Union sympathizer Lotta to help an escaped Confederate prisoner of war.
Once each refugee is safe, Lorrie finds herself back in her own time. Meanwhile she deals with various life changes and challenges, and comes to understand both the nasty boys and the obnoxious neighbor girl and her equally unpleasant mother into whose care her busy aunt keeps forcibly entrusting her. She learns to fit into this foreign country, while also serving as a bridge between the inhabitants of the house and the rest of the people in her life.
Gradually she learns more about the magic of the house, and comes to realize both who Miss Ashemeade really is, and what the dollhouse can do for those who need sanctuary. When the building of a highway threatens the house’s existence, she does her best to save it and the people who live in it.
When I first read this book, I was almost exactly the same age as Lorrie. I don’t remember any of it other than the shape of the house, but rereading it has brought back the sense of the world as it was in the late Sixties. As a misfit child with too many brains on top of a disability, I was just the kind of person this book was written for. I could live that life. With time travel. And a toy horse that turned into a real one.
The house I lived in at the time was a little bit weird in itself: We occupied two stories on top of a machine shop next door to the water district office where my father was the manager. We had a big backyard with a pine tree, and the front lawn had a spectacular fountain, painted silver, that was turned off in the winter but ran all through the other three seasons. I wanted a horse, badly, and I wanted magic. This book understood me.
Parts of it are of its time, of course. It’s painful now to endure the Uncle Remus dialect of the housekeeper and the escaped slave, and the poor white children’s dialect isn’t a whole lot better. Lorrie doesn’t like math, which was how girls were taught to be, and if they did like it, they were discouraged in numerous ways. But she’s a geek girl before the term was invented, and she learns to appreciate the magic of fiber arts, and even to work spells of her own.
Norton was trying hard to write a middle America that wasn’t universally white, to teach about poverty, about slavery, about the opposing sides of the Civil War. Her contemporary Black characters, Lorrie’s friend Lizabeth and her mother, are highly intelligent, well educated, and speak standard English. One of Lorrie’s life lessons is to wake up the other children to their racism and teach them to accept Lizabeth as one of the gang.
Norton wrote about the lives of women outside of traditional nuclear families. Lorrie’s aunt has a job she is good at, and she’s not looking for a man. There’s no Mr. Lockner next door. Miss Ashemeade and Hallie live happily without a male; the one plot element that might have turned into a romance quietly refrains from doing so.
In 1967 this was radical. Women living independent lives and acting as if it’s a perfectly normal thing. Having jobs. Being themselves without requiring male validation. Dealing with male incursions and turning them into positive experiences. Triumphing, though often in subtle ways, over the forces of war and progress. And not a word or a hint that this is either tragic or truncated, that the true fulfillment of a woman’s life is to be an appendage to a man.
Compared to all the all-male space adventures and the girl-dancing-in-chains plot of Steel Magic, this book is a revelation. It tends to be preachy and it’s heavy on the tween angst, but that’s fairly common of its time and genre. It works for me even now, because I remember what it was like to be a girl of that age at that time. I wanted the things Lorrie wanted, and I bought into some of the assumptions she lived by, too, particularly the one about math.
I’ll be reading Dragon Magic next. I don’t know yet if I’ll read its sequel, Dragon Mage: It’s a posthumous collaboration, and I’m focusing on the solo novels. We’ll see how I feel after I’ve reread the rest of the series.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.