Eager, Edward: (02) Magic by the Lake

I stopped by the local used bookstore yesterday and picked up a fairly odd assortment of things: Edward Eager’s Magic by the Lake, Jennifer Crusie’s Fast Women, and a second edition Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. A children’s book, a novel that (judging by past Crusie books) will include either literal or figurative headbanging sex, and a dusty reference work. I was almost disappointed that the store’s owner didn’t say anything when he rang them up . . .

Magic by the Lake is the sequel to Half Magic, which was one of my favorite books as a kid. I have no idea why I’d never read this, but I rediscovered Half Magic a few years ago and have been vaguely meaning to read more of Eager’s other books since. I read Magic by the Lake last night, justifying it to myself as a reward for doing reasonably well on the first of the simulated exam sections in the bar review course; really, though, I was just too hot and tired to do anything useful by the time we got home from dinner and errands.

Like Half Magic, ’tis a silly book. Four children are vacationing at a lakeside cottage for the summer; one of them sees a sign by the cottage that says “Magic by the Lake,” and another wishes it were true—unfortunately, in the hearing of a turtle, who grants the wish rather grumpily (apparently all turtles are magic).

“You had to be greedy and order magic by the lake, and of course now you’ve got a whole lakeful of it, and as for how you’re going to manage it, I for one wash my hands of the whole question!” . . .

The four children stared, transfixed.

Every bit of the lake’s surface seemed to be suddenly alive, and each bit of it was alive in a different way. It was like trying to keep track of a dozen three-ring circuses, only more so.

Water babies gamboled in the shallows. A sea serpent rose from the depths. Some rather insipid-looking fairies flew over. A witch hobbled on a far bank. A rat and a mole and a toad paddled along near the willowly shore, simply messing about in a boat. A family of dolls explored a floating island. On the other side of the same island, a solitary man stared at a footprint in the sand. A hand appeared in the middle of the lake holding a sword. Britannia ruled the waves. Davy Jones came out of his locker. Neptune himself appeared, with naiads and Nereids too numerous to mention.

The two younger children shut their eyes.

“Make it stop,” said Martha. . . .

“And you needn’t go asking me to take it back, because it’s too late. Magic has rules, you know, the same as everything else.”

“Yes, we know,” said Mark, “but you’d never think so, to look at it now. It’s all every which way.”

They all looked at the lake again. Some Jumblies had appeared, going to sea in a sieve. A walrus and a carpenter danced with some oysters on a nearby shore. In the distance Columbus was discovering America.

There is something ineffably English about these. For instance:

“We could take our lunch,” said Katharine.

“What kind of sandwiches?” said Mark.

“Jam,” said Martha thoughtfully, “and peanut-butter-and-banana, and cream-cheese-and-honey, and date-and-nut, and prune-and-marshmallow . . . “

A time passed.

Their mother came into the kitchen. “What’s all this mess?” she said. “Nobody leaves this house till it’s cleaned up.”

And nobody did.

I read this bit last night as a prime example of “the English have weird ideas about sandwiches,” something I’d learned from experience. Of course, on the back porch, racing to finish before dark fell completely, I managed to miss the line right before that said “Let’s explore our own territory. See America first,” making a later reference to Indiana quite the rude shock.

It’s a bit dated now in its assumptions about gender roles, but not in too objectionable a way. Half Magic is better, but this is light, fun, amusing summer reading.


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  1. The funny thing is, I read those sandwiches as entirely American! Jam, I grant you, is an English word – but peanut butter, at least when Eager was writing, and I first read these books, was a something foreign and exotic, and even now peanut-butter-and-something-else is not that familiar a concept in England. And as for prune-and-marshmallow..!

    You don’t mention the N.M. Bodecker illustrations – I hope your edition has them, as they were one of the best things about the Edward Eager books.

  2. My idea of a sandwich is ham and cheese, or roast beef, or turkey. Meat, bread, maybe a little cheese, some mustard; peanut butter and jelly is an honorable exception. Those sandwiches aren’t even in the same universe.

    Yes, they have the illustrations, which are charming. The most recent U.S. editions have covers by (insert name of guy who illustrates Roald Dahl’s books), which also fit very well.

  3. Well, there goes another illusion: you read that bit as an example of the weirdness of English sandwiches, and I read it as an example of the weirdness of American sandwiches (even allowing for the fact that Martha is the youngest, so this may not be standard fare).

    The substitute illustrator is probably Quentin Blake: he has many fans, and it isn’t his fault that I can never forgive him for replacing illustrations that I already know and love – same thing happened with another favourite from my childhood, J.B.S. Haldane’s “My Friend Mr. Leakey”…

  4. Oh gosh no, the covers are by Blake (you’re right), but he didn’t do the interior illustrations–they’re obviously by someone different, and by checking Amazon’s “look inside” feature, the interior are definitely still Bodecker.

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