Tuesday, June 30, 2009

THE STORY OF THE AMULET

The Story of the Amulet, E Nesbit, T Fisher Unwin, 1906 (currently, Puffin, 1996) 281 pp


This was one of my favorite books when I was growing up. I decided to re-read it as part of my research for the memoir I am writing. I have a tattered copy of the 1965 Puffin paperback edition, which came free with any purchase at a used bookstore. The pages are yellowed but they are all there as well as the perfect illustrations by H R Miller.

The Story of the Amulet is a sequel to The Five Children and It, which I also read long ago. But the Amulet always stands out in my memory because I "discovered" it on the shelves of our local library in Princeton, NJ, where our mom took us every two weeks. Upon reading it, I had my mind blown for perhaps the first time in my life. I wanted to see if I could figure out why and I did.

There are four English children in this story who find themselves spending their summer holidays in a dreary old house on Fitzroy Street, London (near the British Museum) in the care of their old Nurse. Father has gone to Manchuria to report on the war and Mother plus The Lamb (the new baby in the family) is in Madeira recovering from an illness. When I first read this book, probably at the age of nine, I had no idea about any of these places. But the writing is like a spell that just pulled me in to these children's lives, their relationships with each other and of course, their adventures. I am sure I had already read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at least once, so I was in a sense primed but Nesbit is a magician whereas C S Lewis only wished he was.

Because what entranced me back then and again now, was the magic. It is magic the way children do magic, fully ensconced in their imaginations. In fact, most grownups are at least annoyed by such a degree of imagination and some are truly alarmed. I recall being told as a child that something I said was "all in my imagination" and thinking, "Where else would it be?" Children know full well what is imagination and what is reality plus are able to move freely between the two. Such is the case with Anthea, Cyril, Robert and Jane, though Jane being the youngest, is the most easily frightened and sometimes protests when the magic gets to be too much. Yes! That is just the way it was in my life.

So there is an amulet, but the children only have half of it. The Psammead, a sand fairy who helplessly grants wishes and was the "It" of Five Children and It, reappears and though the children had promised the Psammead at the end of the previous summer not to ask for another wish as long as they lived, he does inform them that should they find the other half of the amulet, they can realize their hearts' desire.

After learning to use the amulet's magic they are off: to ancient Egypt, Babylon, Atlantis, etc. All these places are dangerous in the extreme but full of wondrous delights as well. Again, as a child, I knew virtually nothing about these places, yet they were so real to me back then as I read. I grew up to love books about Atlantis and Egypt and with a hunger to know the history of such ancient times. That is truly magic on many levels.

Since I began working at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, which serves a whole community of children, young mothers, teachers and grandparents, I have rediscovered children's literature and much of it is still great reading, but Nesbit is the inventor of the children's adventure story. She influenced C S Lewis, P L Travers (Mary Poppins), Diana Wynne Jones and J K Rowling, but being the originator, she is still the best.

(All of the books mentioned in this review are available at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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