We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
[Marianne Williamson]

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Magic City

I've been finished Edith Nesbitt's The Magic City for well over a week now, but still haven't had a chance to jot down my thoughts about it – or even choose a new book to read!

I am trying hard to catch up with Wombat's updates before his first birthday, and we are also planning our first real family holiday in years for the end of this month – which will include my graduation ceremony. There are so many things to think about when travelling with a baby! I have just bought a (secondhand on ebay) pram – a Triton Trekker - which will hopefully fold a bit smaller than our beloved Emmaljunga (also secondhand from ebay ;P), and a pile of other things... plus there is a little matter of Wombat birthday presents to be taken care of... I added a huge pile of books to a virtual shopping cart the other day, because more than anything else at the moment, Wombat LOVES books (his other toys go largely untouched! Guess he takes after me ;P) but then I realised if I bought all of those I wouldn't be able to afford petrol to go on holiday... so they will just have to wait and be an unbirthday present later in the year (he already has Moo Baa La La La by Sandra Boynton, and Yeti & I heard some snippets of songs from Philadelphia Chickens the other day and immediately bought that for him... I want to get him lots more Boynton books because they are just so much fun!)

I have been praying that the electricity bill wouldn't arrive and need to be paid before we go, but it arrived today, and is due to be paid the day before we leave. The request for divine assistance didn't fail me though - it's not nearly as bad as I feared – still horrendous but about $400 less than the last one – I guess all those electricity blackouts we've had lately have been good for something!)

We are still living without a hot-water system. Water for washing up is boiled in the kettle, and we are using an immersion heater to warm our bathwater – Wombat and I bathe together, and Yeti often uses the water afterwards :P He always said the ancient hot-water system was the most expensive electrical appliance in the house. I guess he was right! It looks like it won't be covered by insurance, so it will be a while until we can afford to replace it. Surprising how quickly you learn to live without having hot water on tap!

Anyway, back to the book review. I did enjoy The Magic City, though it is very dated in parts (published 1910). It also suffers from one of the traditional drawbacks of childrens' books, in that the main boy character is an orphan, and the mother of the main girl character has just died.

Philip lives with his adored, absolutely perfect half-sister, Helen, who is twenty years old than him. She homeschools him, and nourishes his active imagination. Philip's world is turned upside down when Helen is reunited with her childhood sweetheart, who is a recent widower. He proposes and Helen accepts, telling Philip he will now be going to live with her in a big mansion of a house, and have a new sister called Lucy. Philip is distraught at the thought of sharing Helen with anyone, and determines to hate Lucy sight unseen. His sister has taught him well, however, and he suppresses his ambivalence for her sake - at least while she is watching.

Helen and her husband head off on honeymoon, and Philip is left in the big house with Lucy and a pile of servants. He is miserable and takes his feelings out on Lucy, who is unfailingly good natured – a lonely, only child who has been looking forward to sharing her games with a friend. Lucy's aunt sees Philip's horrid behaviour, and takes Lucy off for a short holiday, leaving Philip alone with the servants, including a strict and unsympathetic nurse who forbids him to touch Lucy's toys.

His life starts to improve when the nurse temporarily returns to her own home, leaving him free range of the house. His temper sweetens and he gradually wins over the other servants. To amuse himself, he starts to build a city in the library, using Lucy's blocks and anything else he can find (since a city built all of blocks “looks like a factory”). When it is finished, Philip is magically transported into his city, where he meets Lucy (who has returned unexpectedly and followed him in). He is still resentful of her, despite her friendliness, and although they promise to support each other in their adventure, he abandons her in a moment of danger. Back in the real world, he finds everything has turned 'topsy turvy' because Lucy has gone missing. Only he knows where she is. He realises that only he can save her and that it is his duty to do so (as it turns out, Lucy becomes an active participant in her rescue).

This is where the real adventure begins, as Philip and Lucy travel on a fantastic journey through every imaginative landscape Philip has ever built, peopled by a mixture of the toy figurines Philip used to populate his creations, by the craftspeople who made the objects he used in building (who inhabit this world while they are dreaming in the real world) and by occasional escapees from the books he has incorporated into his designs.

This concept is very well handled by Nesbitt, with lots of fun details that really make the story.
Philip noticed that each soldier stood on a sort of green mat. When the order to march was given, each soldier quickly and expertly rolled up his green mat and put it under his arm. And whenever they stopped, because of the crowd, each soldier unrolled his green mat, and stood on it till it was time to go on again. And they had to stop several times, for the crowd was very thick in the great squares and in the narrow streets of the city. It was a wonderful crowd. There were men and women and children in every sort of dress. Italian, Spanish, Russian; French peasants in blue blouses and wooden shoes, workmen in the dress English working people wore a hundred years ago. Norwegians, Swedes, Swiss, Turks, Greeks, Indians, Arabians, Chinese, Japanese, besides Red Indians in dresses of skins, and Scots in kilts and sporrans. Philip did not know what nation most of the dresses belonged to—to him it was a brilliant patchwork of gold and gay colours. It reminded him of the fancy-dress party he had once been to with Helen, when he wore a Pierrot's dress and felt very silly in it. He noticed that not a single boy in all that crowd was dressed as he was—in what he thought was the only correct dress for boys. Lucy walked beside him. Once, just after they started, she said, 'Aren't you frightened, Philip?' and he would not answer, though he longed to say, 'Of course not. It's only girls who are afraid.' But he thought it would be more disagreeable to say nothing, so he said it.
The turn-of-the-century morality of the book is spread pretty thickly, but is still generally relevant to today's children:
Girls weren't expected to be brave.
'They are, here,' said Mr. Noah, 'the girls are expected to be brave and the boys kind.'
While in general this level of morality suits the story, there are times when the passage of time has spoiled the effect. A good example is when Philip finally starts to warm towards Lucy (we all knew they were going to be friends, right?) and he says “I hate gas” meaning the kind of gushing enthusiasm girls are prone to indulging in. Lucy's reply is properly stereotypical:
'Yes,' said Lucy obediently, 'I know. Only sometimes you feel you must gas a little or burst of admiration.'
This was one of the very few jarring points, however, and Nesbitt continued the conversation long enough for a young modern reader to puzzle out the meaning of the word:
'What a lovely island it is. And you made it!'
'No gas,' said Philip warningly. 'Helen and I made it.'
'She's the dearest darling,' said Lucy.
'Oh, well,' said Philip with resignation, 'if you must gas, gas about her.'
I will leave you to discover the details of Philip and Lucy's adventures for yourself. I thoroughly enjoyed the appropriateness of the quests, and the clever ways they were solved. My favourite character was the parrot! Less convincing was the villain of the story – the Pretenderette. I won't reveal her rather obvious identity, but I found her appearances (and her disguise) to be an almost annoying distraction in the story. At times she seemed more wooden than the wooden characters! The interaction between her and the parrot was entertaining, however - the best moment was when the parrot dragged her back to jail by the ear!

Her motivation for her behaviour was perhaps the most dated thing about the book, and might take some explaining to modern children. While the final battle was almost a disappointing anticlimax in which Philip and Lucy played very little part, I did think the Pretenderette's fate was poetic justice at its best.

All in all I found it a very enjoyable, light read, and I look forward to sharing it with Wombat – though perhaps I will save it until after he has passed that impressionable age where (from what I have heard) stories featuring deceased parents can be a problem.

I think it would be brilliant for the 7-9 age group, where the behaviour and morals of the characters could provide the start to a discussion about personal development. The fantasy structure should assist in promoting imagination and creative play with everyday objects.

I know I immediately started looking at the objects around me with new eyes, wondering how I would fit them into a magic city of my own.


Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Hey! Thanks so much for linking to me. It looks like we have a few things in common. I'll keep checking back to read more.

scribbit said...

Ha! I almost added Cat in the Hat to the list, it's Lillian's favorite right
now and I could almost recite it verbatim, but not quite.

And yes, I too was named after the song. I'm just glad they didn't go with
Prudence or Rita. :)