Thursday, October 14, 2010

Eleanor Cameron's A Spell Is Cast

I spent most of the afternoon sitting in a lawn chair reading Eleanor Cameron's A Spell Is Cast.  Eleanor Cameron is a children's author, best known for her Mushroom Planet series, but her realistic novels, the most famous of which is A Room Made of Windows, are my favorites.  I especially have wonderful memories of A Spell of Cast, one of the remarkable novels my fifth-grade teacher read aloud to us.  Mrs. Scott loved reading, and I am awed by her taste as I think back.  We were mesmerized by Island of the Blue Dolphins, Snow Treasure, A Long Way to Go, Ginger Pye, and Rascal.  She was a young woman with brown pouffy hair and heavily made-up eyes, who wore shirtdresses and other '60s fashions we admired. She was very quiet, but looking back, her reading aloud had an intense influence on me.  I have only to open A Spell Is Cast to recapture warm, rainy afternoons, with the windows open, and that muddy scent that is  redolent of storms in the midwest.  And of course I could never wait for Mrs. Scott to finish the novels before I read them myself. I usually ran over to the public library and checked them out.
A Spell Is Cast is the story of Cory Winterslow's stay with her grandmother and Uncle Dirk in California.  Her adoptive mother, Stephanie Van Heusen, an actress, tours constantly and has left Cory with a series of hired helps.  But during this tour, she has sent Cory to California, and Cory has looked forward eagerly to being part of a family. She is intensely disappointed when Uncle Dirk, who has written charming letters, doesn't show up at the airport.  This is one of the first of her adventures. A neighbor gives her a ride part of the way home, and when they run out of gas, a boy her own age, Peter, leads her on a short cut across the beach. A storm breaks and they shelter in a cave.  At home she learns that her mother sent the wrong date to her family and that they had expected her tomorrow.  And she learns from her grim grandmother that Stephanie has never legally adopted her, which is a blow.  
The Van Heusen relatives have many family secrets.  During a long dream sequence when Cory has a fever--have I ever read a dream sequence in another children's book?--she finds herself in a music room where there is a chess set with carved unicorns instead of horses.  It turns out later that this part of the long dream is true.  It is atmospheric moments like this that made this novel such an intense experience when I was young.
The descriptions of the beach made me quite desperately want to leave the midwest, and I spent many vacations at the beach as an adult.  
"...Cory explored the whole beach, keeping a watch on Peter's house to see if she might catch sight of him, but he did not appear.  Gradually, she began humming to herself as she searched for treasures.  She found a small bleached bird's skull, ivory-colored and perfect and not in the least fragile.  She found a curiously shaped piece of driftwood with peaked shells clinging to it, and another shell among a pile of seaweed.  It was oval, like a little saucer, a rough, dull greeny-yellow, the precise color of the seaweed to which it was stuck.  But when she finally managed to pry it off and turn it over, she discovered that on the inside it was glistening smooth as glass, pearly around the outside and with a pool of rich color in the center like frozen sea water."
It has been a real pleasure to reread this.  It is out-of-print, but it seems to me that there is plenty here to captivate readers.  A Room Full of Windows is a somewhat better book, but this is the one I love.


Diane said...

Thank you so much! I have been trying to remember the name of this book forever. It was one of my all time favorites as a child. It was my first introduction to unicorns, family crests, and Scottish customs. I always loved the part where she discovered Uncle Dirk's secret love and also found out that he could play the piano. It made me look up and learn how to play "Greensleeves" myself. Thanks for the memory!

Frisbee said...

Yes, it's great. Unicorn chess pieces, dreams the sea...everything we could have wanted!

I wish this were in print.