May 12, 2016
(++++) EVERYDAY MAGIC, LIGHT AND DARK
Half Magic. By Edward Eager. Illustrations by N.M. Bodecker. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $6.99.
Everland. By Wendy Spinale. Scholastic. $17.99.
A book that deserves to be called timeless even though it is not much more than half a century old, Edward Eager’s Half Magic is as winning today as it surely was when first published in 1954. It is a story of everyday life, of warmth and what are now called “family values,” and of the touches of real magic that cement a family even when some of its members can command the sorts of powers that we usually talk of when using the word “magic.” Eager’s suburban setting is a trifle quaint now, given the absence of computers and cell phones, but aside from that, Half Magic wears extremely well. The main reason is the charm of the underlying premise: taking a page from the marvelous books of E. Nesbit, whom he greatly admired, Eager (1911-1964) creates a story in which ordinary people living ordinary lives suddenly encounter something very much outside the ordinary. And they do not use it to gain great wealth or power but to try to fulfill everyday wishes, the sort that kids in 1954 – and kids today – have all the time. Or rather, in this case, the characters use the magic to try to fulfill half wishes: Eager came up with a wonderfully clever premise in which a magical object that looks a lot like an ordinary nickel is able to grant half of what its holders wish for. The four children – Jane, Mark, Katherine and Martha – have more depth and personality than kids in children’s books usually do nowadays, and while they certainly share some feelings (mostly involving the fact that their father has died and they are worried about their mother’s happiness), they are individuated enough to make very different sorts of wishes. Or, again, half wishes: the way the kids figure out the half-wish premise (especially their misadventure with their sort-of-talking cat) and then try to make wishes that will get them all they want by wishing for twice what they want is one of the many enjoyments of the book. The wishes themselves range from the exotic (a trip to Camelot and confrontation with Merlin, who proclaims the object’s magic older than his own and who proves quite quick on the uptake about using it to make successful half wishes) to the mundane (Jane’s wish to be in some other family, and her realization that that is not what she wants after all). The characters stay true to themselves throughout the book, and the eventual happy ending, in which they all realize that they already have what they wish for most – each other – is certainly sentimental but is not as oozingly treacly or forced-feeling as are many conclusions of books for young readers today. Half Magic has a pleasantly meandering, unforced narrative feel to it that is as engaging in the 21st century as it was in the middle of the 20th.
There is a Katherine in Wendy Spinale’s Everland, too – spelled Katherina – but that is about all this book has in common with Eager’s. The real-world setting here is an alternative-world one: for readers who would prefer to strip away every last vestige of charm from a magical tale and see it as dark, dour, and thoroughly downbeat, Everland is as unpleasant a reimagining of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as anyone has come up with in recent years. A straightforwardly dystopic novel in which London has been destroyed by bombs and disease and only children have survived, Everland is all about 16-year-old Gwen Darling; her younger siblings, Joanna and Mikey; a German army contingent led by Captain Hanz Otto Oswald Kretschmer (hence the acronym “Hook,” of course); the evil Marauders and their good-guy enemies, the Lost Boys; an underground city where a boy named Peter lives and spends time outfoxing the baddies; and, yes, a “second star to the right,” which is about all that this utterly charmless and frequently ugly (++) book retains of Barrie’s sense of wonder and exploration. To be sure, Barrie’s work is itself considerably darker and more adult than the many later adaptations of it, from the famous musical starring Mary Martin to the 1953 Disney film and the live-action movie made 50 years later. But if there is pervasive regret in Barrie about the necessity of growing up, and wistfulness for both the real and imagined joys and adventures (and frights) of childhood, Peter Pan has so many compensatory charms that it has rightly been a classic since first staged in 1904. Pretty much anything potentially classic has been stripped from Everland, which mixes steampunk sensibilities (lots of zeppelins) with bits of scientific absurdity (a deadly virus and, for a possible cure, a mixture of stem cells with elements that make possible autotomy – tail regrowth – in some lizards). The dim name echoes of Peter Pan, not only “Hook” but also “Smeeth,” are the primary connections that Spinale establishes with Barrie’s story, but it is quite certain that Everland is not intended for readers who have any familiarity with (much less love for) Peter Pan in any of its guises. Barrie is merely a jumping-off point for Spinale; and that would be fine if Everland had any significant originality in plotting, pacing or characterization. But it has none of these – it is just another good-vs.-evil dystopia – and it emphatically eschews humor, which might have made the whole tale more palatable. Having Gwen and Hook narrate alternating chapters would have been a good plan if doing so had created some balance and even ambiguity, showing Gwen to have some level of darkness within and Hook to have some sort of justifiable (even if twisted) motivation. But Spinale is either uninterested in nuance or unsure how to proffer it (Everland is her first novel). By the end of the book, when the good guys win and the bad guys lose, when Gwen realizes she is growing up and there is a hint that even Peter, too, may be doing so at last, readers have been subjected to a whole series of cinematic action scenes and surface-level dialogue, all without any significant portion of plot creativity; and, in fact, it is almost as hard to care about the fate of the “good guys” here as it is figure out why the “bad guys” do what they do (well, they are bad; that pretty well takes care of things). It is fire (why is it so often fire?) that eventually cleanses things here, but anything else that swept away the tatters of this disappointing story would have been equally welcome.