Eleanor Cameron’s “A Spell Is Cast”

 The other day I decided to reread Eleanor Cameron’s beautifully-written novel, The Spell Is Cast.   It is that rarity, a  children’s book that can be read with as much interest by adults as children.  There is even a Dali-esque dream sequence, just as vivid as the dream in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Spellbound.  And the book won the Silver Medal, 1964 Commonwealth Awards; was nominated for the Edgar; and was a Horn Book Fanfare Best Book of 1964.

I wrote this book journal entry in 2010.

October 17, 2010

I spent most of the afternoon sitting in a lawn chair reading Eleanor Cameron’s A Spell Is Cast.  Cameron is a children’s author, best known for her Mushroom Planet series, but her realistic novels 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. W. loved reading, and I am awed by her taste as I think back.  We were mesmerized by The Pushcart War, Snow Treasure, A Long Way to Go, The Alley, and Rascal, to name a few. She was very quiet, but looking back, I realize 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.W. 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, is always on tour, and leaves 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 the first of her adventures. A neighbor gives her a ride part of the way home, and when the car runs 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.

Cory discovers the unicorn chess set she dreamed about.

The descriptions of the beach made me quite desperately want to leave the midwest, and perhaps my frequent vacations at the beach as an adult were inspired by this.

…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 is a breathaking novel! I also like the illustrations by Joe and Beth Krush.

Alas, this book is out-of-print: let’s hope some publisher rediscovers and reissues it.