Friday, July 19, 2013

"They call me Sir Kath," said the strange knight, "and I hail from Toledo, Ohio."

I've visited the sites where many of my favorite children's stories take place. I've been to Watership Down, Alderley Edge, the Hundred Acre Wood. But there is one real-life locale of a childhood fantasy favorite where I'd never been, though it's here in the states: Toledo, Ohio, site of Half Magic by Edward Eager. And though other intrepid tourists have put up photographic websites devoted to some of these other locales, nobody, so far as I can tell, has gone Eager-hunting in Toledo. Until now. I made a point of including this on our post-Mythcon trip.

Half Magic (I've never cottoned much to the sequels, which undercut the unique appeal of the original book), was published in 1954 and is set "about thirty years ago" (in 1924, to be precise, as that's the date of the movie the children see in the Martha chapter). Eager spent his own early childhood in Toledo, though by 1924, the year he turned 13, his family had moved away and he never returned to live. The story concerns four children - siblings, a boy and three girls - who find a magic charm which, they eventually figure out, gives you half of what you wish for. Over the course of a week, inadvertent or impulsive wishes make their cat half-talk, take them to half of a desert island (just the desert, in Arabia), make Martha half-disappear (It is not often that one is watching a movie, and suddenly a wailing ghostly figure rises from the floor and scrambles past one), bring their mother suddenly half-way home from their stuffy aunt's house, and much else. Only Katharine, by carefully wishing for twice as much as a trip to Camelot, gets what she thinks she wants, if you don't count Jane, who angrily wishes for twice as much as belonging to some other family. If it all sounds a lot like E. Nesbit, that hasn't escaped the author.

In the parts of the story that keep the children in Toledo, local geography is ample. The street names are all real, and the area they live in turns out to be a neighborhood of colorful late 19th-century houses called the Old West End. My first stop was the public library, whose predecessor building features in the story (for the children are all enthusiastic readers, especially of Nesbit), to check the city directories for Eager's address. He lived on the same street the children do, Maplewood Avenue, but his house is no longer there, for half or more of two blocks of Maplewood has been pulled down to make room for a passing freeway and its off-ramp.

The remaining houses on those blocks and their immediate neighbors are today in a sorry state: run-down, paint peeling, spotted with vacant lots. The street pavements are likewise peeling and the sidewalks are grassy, easy to hide a magic charm in. Other parts of the Old West End are in somewhat better shape, with colorful paint jobs on some houses while their immediate neighbors are ripe for fixing-up.

In the Jane chapter, the eponym on becoming She-who-was-no-longer-Jane flounces off down the street towards the house where she now belongs. This is the most geographically interesting part of the story, and here are some pictures. (By the way, I seem to be the only person in the world having no trouble whatever uploading to the new Flickr.)

Far down Maplewood Avenue they could just make out a genteel figure in Jane's dress ... As they watched, the figure turned to the right, into Virginia Street. (That would be at the end of the block, halfway down the photo, near the big tree on the right.)

Looking back along Maplewood in the other direction from the corner of Virginia. That is a dead end, where the freeway exit cuts through where the street used to go.

"She must be in this block somewhere," said Katharine. "She hasn't had time to walk any farther." ... Luckily it was a short one, with only eight houses in it. Almost all the houses looked very much like their own - comfortable, slightly shabby, family sort of houses, with an easy-to-get-along-with, lived-in look. All but one.

Could it have been this one? (Off to the left of the previous photo.) No.

Try the block from the other end.

This is a block further down Maplewood, closer to where the children lived. Eager's house was on the other side of the street from here, where a hedge now ineffectively masks freeway noise. Why the German flag on the house here, ich weiss nicht.

A typical pair of fixer-uppers from a couple blocks away.

And here's a little more color in a better part of the neighborhood.

And ... lions! Reminds me of this sequence: As Mark passed Mrs. Hudson's house he wished, as he'd often wished before, that just for once the iron dog in the yard would be alive, instead of only iron. Then he looked back. For a minute he thought he heard a faint muffled bark, and it seemed as though the iron tail had started to wag.


  1. Wow! Gosh ... just wow! Thanks for doing and posting these. Half Magic and Knight's Castle are so dear to my heart...

  2. This is AWESOME! I loved the books as a child and I don't think I ever realized it was set in a real place. I've started to really enjoy coming across places I've been in books. Book settings is a great idea for a trip, I'll have to plan one myself!