Monday, October 22, 2012

The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit


Last night, I finished reading The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit aloud to my kids.  I skipped The Phoenix and the Carpet in the Five Children series even though we own it.  I thought we’d get a little saturated with the series before it was over, and I wanted to read Amulet because it dealt with ancient cultures, and we are studying ancient cultures this cycle in Classical Conversations.

I liked Amulet for all the same reasons I liked Five Children.  The narrative voice was funnily distinct and—in this book—a little more thoughtful.  We found ourselves soberly nodding along with Nesbit when she said things like,
“But when [the children’s father] was gone [to be a war correspondent], everyone felt as if it had been trying not to cry all its life, and that it must cry now, if it died for it.  So they cried.” 

Felt as if it had been trying not to cry all its life... Yes, we’d all had that feeling.  That swollen bubble of sucked-in pain in the heart and throat.  The feeling that you’re ruining yourself permanently by keeping a normal look on your face.  We went on and on, rolling the idea around like a cherry cough drop.  You can imagine.

I love a good, sad line in a book.  It’s like running your tongue over a mouth sore or tapping on a bruise. 

In this book, the children discover a magic amulet that will give them their “hearts’ desire” if they can travel through time and find its missing half.  They enlist the aid of the psammead (the wish-granting sand fairy from the previous book) and of a learned gentleman boarder living upstairs.  With their help, the children zigzag throughout various ancient cultures and times—Egypt, Babylon, Rome—and hunt for the missing piece of the charm. 

As we read, we tried to identify and place the bits of true history that popped up, so that was fun. Funnish.  However, this book isn’t the kind of historical fiction that doubles as a stout history lesson.  More’s the pity, because everything I know about history I learned from historical fiction.  Historical fiction is like hiding broccoli in a bite of cheese.  But this book is light on historical facts, sprinkling them in like paprika to flavor the plot.  I’m always looking for ways to make novels count as an entire curriculum out of laziness, so I couldn’t help but resent this book just a tish for being an historical lightweight. 

I got kind of bogged down with the old, British schoolyard colloquialisms in this book. The kids’ taunts to each other, for instance, were so obscure and unfamiliar that I wasn’t sure how to make my voice sound while reading the dialogue.  Funny?  Mean?  Sad?  Anyway.  It made my brain hurt, but it wasn’t enough to cause my kids to lose interest.  They loved the book.  At the end, the children have to say goodbye to the psammead. 

“The psammead swelled itself up, turned its long snail’s eyes in one last lingering look at Anthea—a loving look, she always said, and thought—and—vanished.”

As I read this, I glanced up and saw Clara holding her hands to her cheeks, her face blanched with grief.  I had to swallow a laugh because, really, my kids are a boiled down version of me when it comes to their sprawling capacities for tragic feelings.  Good luck with that, kids.  Mommy’s sorry.

One other thing:  The children in the book use incorrect grammar sometimes. 

Ex: “It’s them!” cried Robert, and a thrill ran through four hearts.

It’s them.  Did Nesbit do that to make the kids sound realistic?  I’ve always imagined that well-bred children in England in 1906 used correct grammar, carried along by the culture, as it were.  You see incorrect usage all the time in contemporary books in both narrative and dialogue, but I assume this is because no one knows how to speak correctly, and editors don't want to alienate the audience.  Or creative license, or what-have-you.  But in a book written in 1906, what can it all mean?

This is how I spend my precious time, thinking about these things.

Anyway, another good, old book.  Give it a chance.