In Seven Spells to Sunday we have another of Andre Norton’s collaborative novels for children, from the same publisher and the same era (mid to late Seventies) as the Star Ka’at series. According to the author bios, her collaborator, Phyllis Miller, had the idea, “inspired by a young reader who asked for a book about ‘real magic.’” But the book reads as pretty much straight Norton.
There are two protagonists, both misfits, both in foster care. Monnie is a tough, streetwise, not very nice almost-ten-year-old. Bim is about the same age, much more timid, and much beset with bullies at school and on the street. They live with a nice couple who have a daughter in her late teens, but they’ve both been bumped around the system and they both expect to be moved on sooner or later. There’s no talk of their being adopted. They clearly expect to keep living in other people’s houses until they finally age out of the system.
Then one day, in a vacant lot near the apartment, Monnie finds an old purple mailbox. Moved by an impulse she can’t explain, she salvages it and sets it up. She writes her name on it and, again for no explainable reason, makes up a letter to put in it, asking for mail in return.
Bim catches her at it and adds his own name to the box. Monnie resents that, and him, very much, but once it’s done, there’s no changing it. They’re both caught up in whatever purpose the box has for them.
Over the next week, on alternating days, the children start receiving mail in purple envelopes with the name of the recipient on each one, and stars instead of stamps. Monnie gets girl-coded things: a silver broom charm, a “Voo-don’t” (versus voodoo) doll, a magic mirror. Bim gets boy things: a silver wand, a strange candle or torch, a wire star.
Each item has magical powers. The first two of each set work beneficial magic. The third is darker. Then on Sunday, all is revealed, as the star snatches Bim away to a strange, witchy past, and Monnie gets lost in the space between portals and has to be rescued. Finally, when all the magic has worked itself out, the children emerge to a new and hopeful future.
It’s still not adoption, but rather a sort of positively spun orphanage/halfway house. Which is a little bit strange and a little bit sad. I really was expecting the Johnsons to adopt them, instead of announcing that they’re about to move elsewhere to care for a sick relative, so it’s great timing that the foster kids have been selected for this great new program. The kids seem to think this is wonderful news, but it feels like kind of a letdown.
It’s an odd book. The moral undertone is strong, and it’s heavily gendered. Monnie’s magical plot coupons teach her to clean up messes (both her own and others’), wish good things for other people, and overcome and vanquish her own worst impulses. Bim’s versions save him from bullies and teach him to stand up for himself. He has to face his dark side, too, but not nearly as explicitly or at as much length as Monnie. Because girls have to suppress themselves so much more strongly than boys, while also doing the cleaning and the emotional labor. At least Bim volunteers to help Monnie clean up the worst mess her magic gets her into. And then of course he has to rescue her, though he also has to be told to do so by the witchy old lady.
I doubt either author was aware of the ways in which their story reinforced Seventies gender roles. Monnie is the assertive one and Bim is the constant victim, but the point of their magical journey is for her to become nicer and give herself a makeover, and for Bim to become more traditionally masculine. Then they get to go to, basically, boarding school. But it’s a good school! They’ll love it! And they get to stay, presumably, until they become adults.
One Norton tendency really stood out to me in this one. Both Monnie and Bim do most of the things they do without knowing why. That’s probably Norton’s most noticeable habit. The plot moves the characters, and the characters don’t have much say in it. Sometimes they do resist, but resistance is usually futile. The plot will do what the plot will do. The characters’ purpose is to comply.
I don’t really see “real magic” here, unless we’re meant to interpret “real” as kids from troubled backgrounds finding magic in the mundanity of a vacant lot and an abandoned mailbox. It’s still magic; it’s still outside the realm of the ordinary. It controls the kids rather than the other way around, and molds them into more conventionally acceptable versions of their original, grubby, misfit selves.
Next time I’ll move on to another novel with Sunday in the title: Sneeze on Sunday. That’s odd enough to be intriguing.
Judith Tarr has written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, many of which have been published as ebooks. 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.