ONE MORNING, RUMORS blazed at school that World War III was about to start any second. President Kennedy had been on TV, telling Americans that Cuba had nuclear missiles pointed right at us. My bohemian parents didn’t have a TV and hadn’t mentioned it. Most likely they hadn’t wanted to scare me.
I wasn’t all that scared. Kids always talked about dire events that didn’t happen. One boy said Milwaukee was in range of the missiles and we’d be blammed into a crater. Another boy said we were too far north and we’d die excruciating radioactive deaths like the people in On the Beach, the grim apocalyptic tragedy that definitely isn’t for children. But we had read it. The radioactivity would seep into everything — the ocean, our bones. All beings would wipe out, not just we ridiculous humans, but everything.
What else is new, I thought. Everybody speculated about thermonuclear war all the time. The siren went off during math and we trooped down to the basement cafeteria and got under the lunch tables. Air raid drills were normal. It wasn’t until that night or a night soon after that I got scared, really scared, as scared as I’d ever been.
I was in my bedroom. It was dark outside, the early dark of a midwestern autumn. My parents were arguing. I put my ear to the door. Usually I didn’t care to listen to their disagreements, but somehow this time I did. My mother wanted to load us in the car and drive up north to our summer cottage to escape a direct hit. My father said it was premature. My mother said he couldn’t know that. She may have been crying.
It was a dire proposal. The cottage was an icebox even at the height of summer; the fireplace only warmed you if you practically sat in it. If we didn’t die of frostbite and gangrene, we’d starve. I couldn’t see my pacifist poet father fashioning bows and arrows to bag us deer. And why even try to survive when sooner or later we’d all be puked into oblivion?
My father convinced my mother not to leave the city that night. I was more scared than ever now, couldn’t take a breath. What if Chicago had been bombed already and we were breathing poison air? I felt sick. Maybe I’d be dead before daylight — or worse, the last of my family to expire.
I had the spark of a realization that a book could be the antidote to terror. I came away from my listening post and pulled The Story of the Amulet from the shelf. Magic was what I needed to steep in. But not just any magic. It had to be the serious kind.
The Story of the Amulet, the final book in a trilogy about a family of children with access to the magic of the ancients, was written by E. Nesbit in 1905 and has been in print ever since. In the first book, The Five Children and It, siblings Cyril, Anthea, Robert, and Jane find a fairy, not the gossamer nectary kind, but a snail-eyed monkeylike creature called a psammead. Psammeads, like genies, are obliged to grant wishes, but despite the maneuverings of the kids, the magic is troublesome. The magical mentor in The Phoenix and the Carpet is the singular and legendary Phoenix, who helps the kids negotiate the workings of a flying carpet. The children know something about the shadow side of magic from their thwarted Psammead wishes, and resolve to use the magic to help others, to humorous as well as profound effect.
I identified with aspects of each one of the kids. Nesbit never says, but I figured Jane to be 8 or 9, Robert 10 or so, Anthea elevenish, and Cyril a little too old, in his opinion, to be hanging around with children. But Cyril is a cool-headed strategist, and I admired his schemes and confidence. All the kids are brave, which I fervently hoped I’d be if given the opportunity — brave as Anne Frank, brave as the Freedom Riders, who kept on after their bus was torched and white mobs bloodied them. Even young Jane stands up to angry citizenry and policemen and a burglar, whose sweet true self she unearths; then she and the others liberate him from jail and his unsatisfactory life of meaningless labor. I could also appreciate Jane’s tender feelings and her frank outbursts, as well as Robert’s ingenious trickeries and Anthea’s initiative and kind heart.
It was the third book that I reached for. The first two were favorites, and I’d read them many times, but the magic in The Story of the Amulet is weightier than wish fulfillment and carpet travel. My fear fogged over as I huddled in my bunk and read. I wasn’t dying yet.
The children acquire a talisman — the amulet — of grand and mysterious powers, and their collective brains and guts are called upon to contend with it. On their first journey to the past, the amulet takes them to a predynastic Egyptian village, beseiged by javelin-wielding invaders. Almost being skewered is scary enough, but witnessing bloodlust is worse by far. “The children had never before seen men with the fighting light in their eyes,” Nesbit says. “It was very strange and terrible, and gave you a queer thick feeling in your throat.”
Cyril and Anthea and Robert and Jane face danger, brainstorm, resolve their differences, appeal to their adversaries, plan escapes, fashion traps, and come up against evil time and again. They’re betrayed by someone who calls himself a holy man. They see how poverty can twist up a mother. They see rulers who disdain their subjects and aren’t averse to torturing children, and they see how evil can seep and spread, becoming commonplace and everyday.
My life at 11 was safe and pleasant for the most part, but I did a fair amount of worrying about the nonbenign forces. Already I’d spurned the advances of pervs. I made myself not stare at the concentration camp tattoos on the shoe repair man’s wrist. I knew about the people who threatened to kill first-grader Ruby Bridges for enrolling in a white school. My activist parents were considered by some to be dangerous Communists. I worried that they would be tried for treason and electrocuted like the Rosenbergs, and often dreamed of hiding from stormtroopers who were breaking into our upstairs duplex to take us all away. I sometimes thought I’d stop having the dreams if only my father would keep a gun in the house, but he didn’t believe in them.
Had my parents known Edith Nesbit, they’d have had much in common, though Nesbit grew up in England when Victoria was queen and my parents came of age in the Roosevelt era. Like my parents, Nesbit was a bohemian artist with progressive politics and an alternative lifestyle. She was an early member of the Fabian Society, had intellectual, artistic, and romantic relationships with H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, and raised five children, two of them the offspring of her husband and her closest friend Alice. The primary breadwinner of her household, Nesbit was a well-known and prolific author of children’s books, romance novels, personal reminiscence, and poetry.
That fall of 1962, I chose the one book on my shelf that contended with war. I hadn’t yet read the Narnia books, with their evil betrayals and epic battles. (Lewis acknowledged Nesbit as a key influence.) The Civil War surrounds Jo March and her sisters, but they don’t have to see the fighting light in men’s eyes. Curdie’s skirmishes in The Princess and the Goblin are mildly comical, and the enemy is nonhuman, not our own kind. Huck Finn comes up against many a mean drunk and murderous scoundrel, but Twain wrestles with institutions other than the war machine.
And it is the machinery of war that the amulet’s journeying shows the children: Julius Caesar planning to invade Britain, Babylonian soldiers executing citizens in the street, barbarian invaders intent on destruction. Cyril and Robert are under the spell of war’s glamor until they see the honed weapons up close and see the coldblooded planning that war requires. Nesbit herself had not experienced war firsthand when she wrote The Story of the Amulet, but 10 years later, war swallowed Europe. Nesbit’s career slumped, her domestic staff left her to work in munitions plants, and she made ends meet by selling home-grown vegetables from a market stand.
The Story of the Amulet brought me solace that frightening October. The situation was indeed grave. Robert Kennedy said later of the Cuban missiles that “the estimate was that within a few minutes of their being fired, 80 million Americans would be dead.” He and President Kennedy’s other advisors were “being asked to make a recommendation which could affect the future of mankind, a recommendation which … could mean the destruction of the human race.” As I read about the ancient amulet, American planes circled Cuba, ready to drop atomic weapons if given the order.
My family didn’t evacuate the city for the cold north woods. Russian soldiers didn’t stomp upstairs to pull us out from under the beds and into the street. I didn’t need a gun under the pillow to make me feel safe. I needed to remember that people working together with courage can make miracles. A six-year-old girl can integrate a school. People can change laws and topple governments without shooting anybody. A book can take away the shakes and bring blessed sleep, even when humanity’s about to go extinct.
That’s magic for you.
Briggs, Julia. A Woman of Passion: The Life of E. Nesbit. New Amsterdam Books, 1987.
Kennedy, Robert Francis. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. W.W. Norton, 1969.
Langley Moore, Doris. E. Nesbit: A Biography. Chilton Books, 1966.