Books We Love: Half Magic
October 21, 2009

(The post below is another recycled bit from my now living-dead blog, As the World Stearns. Part of our ongoing series on books we adore.)

I unabashedly adore this novel, Edward Eager's second and best book. I love it despite its pretty glaring flaws (some stereotyping of Arabs as "shifty"; a shamelessly episodic structure with some dead spots in the middle), because its quality more than makes up for such minor quibbles. It is relentlessly fun, written with the kind of wit and economy that only the very best writing has, and—at core—it is a story with real emotion, a carefully constructed tale about four kids coming to terms with loss.The central conceit of Half Magic is a simple one: Four children find a magical coin that, when wished upon, immediately grants half of the child's wish. Want a desert island? You end up with a desert. Want a talking cat? Boom! Your cat can now speak only an English-like gibberish. (And is even more annoyed than usual at the indignity of it all, if such a thing is possible.) Each wish the kids make gets them deeper and deeper into pleasant trouble, until they figure out a way to double their wishes and undo the entire mess.

The prose is a deft joy. Eager tells us all we need to know about the children and not a thing more (Chris and I discussed this in our second podcast), and what's amazing is how well we feel we know the kids without getting deluged with information:

Jane was the oldest and Mark was the only boy, and between them they ran everything.Katharine was the middle girl, of docile disposition and a comfort to her mother. She knew she was a comfort, and docile, because she'd heard her mother say so. And the others knew she was, too, by now, because ever since that day Katherine would keep boasting about what a comfort she was, and how docile, until Jane declared she would utter a piercing shriek and fall over dead if she heard another word about it. This will give you some idea of what Jane and Katharine were like.Martha was the youngest, and very difficult.

The four children are at loose ends for the summer because of their father's untimely death several years ago. Their mother is struggling to make ends meet, so she is gone at work all the time, and the kids can't afford to go to the country or camping or any such thing for the summer. "A woman named Miss Bick came in every day to care for the children, but she couldn't seem to care for them very much, nor they for her." They are half a family without their dad, and they need something to make them whole again.So the coin is a welcome diversion. They visit the Sahara, the time of King Arthur, experiment with invisibility, and more, until the coin—having granted a wish to each—is all used up and empty and it seems their adventures are over. More to the point, their mother has met a new man, a nebbishy sort who she nonetheless loves, and who she intends to marry. A typical happy ending, a marriage; but still, the children miss their father. Nice as this new guy may be, he's no replacement.And then Eager takes the coin metaphor a step further and gets at the emotional heart of the book. He does it quickly and with grace, and few readers even notice what he's done:

The last wish was Jane's alone, and she never really knew she made it.That night, as she was getting undressed, she found the charm in her pocket, and sat on the bed looking at it for a long time, and pondering the mystery of how it had come into their hands, and why.And from that she went on thinking about their mother's being married, and the changes it would bring into their lives.She was quite contented about everything. But because she was the only one of the four children who remembered their father, she would have been more contented still if she could have felt sure that he knew about what was going to happen, and approved of it....Her last waking thought was that she wished her father were with her now, so she'd know how he felt about things.She wasn't worrying about the charm, or working out the right fractions, as she wished it. But because there was still this one small corner in Jane that wasn't completely happy, the charm relented, and thawed out of its icy used-upness, and granted the wish, according to its well-known fashion. Immediately, her father was half there.He was there like a thought in her mind, assuring her that everything was all right, and exactly as he would want it, and that he was happy in their happiness.

Which is to say, he's a ghost of sorts, called back to soothe his daughter's worries. In the morning Jane has forgotten all about the visit but not its effects: She is happy without quite knowing why, and the family can move forward. And then the plot kicks into gear again: More hijinks ensue when the charm is picked up by a new child. It is the briefest of emotional moments in a book filled with hilarious business, but one that addresses what really lies at the heart of the novel, and does it with such economy that most readers skate right over it in their eagerness to get back to the fun.Eager was a writer for television, and he wrote his novels for his only son. Like many of his time, Eager smoked like it was his profession and true love (think Mad Men), and he died of cancer at the criminally young age of 53. His son died young, too; his wife, Jane, outlasted the two of them several decades more. But the final heir to the Eager estate—all of his correspondence, manuscripts, and royalties—is Harvard University, his alma mater.In reissuing the book for its fiftieth anniversary some years back, I tracked down and read through all of his correspondence from the early years, and discovered that the seven books of magic we have in print are not his entire body of work. There is a first novel, Red Head, which was never reprinted; and his follow-up manuscript to Half Magic, called Faith, Hope, and Carrotty, which his editor, Margaret McElderry, rejected, and which he never took elsewhere. (It wasn't much like Half Magic, and she thought he should continue in that vein.) Each of his magical novels is half of a pair (Half Magic and Magic By the Lake; Knight's Castle and The Time Garden; The Well-Wishers and Magic or Not?), and there are rumors of an uncompleted eighth tale of magic, a companion to the superb Seven-Day Magic. All of these things and more must be secreted away in his papers at Harvard. Maybe some day an enterprising publisher will dig them up and put them into print—perhaps only digitally, so that the books exist even while they have no physical dimension. That would be exactly the sort of magical ending that Eager would have approved of.