Rereading: BED-KNOB AND BROOMSTICK by Mary Norton

© Estate of Mary Norton, illustration © Erik Blegvad.

I hadn’t read this in a very long time, and it was a nostalgic and fun reread. Mary Norton’s best-known work is probably the series about The Borrowers, a very tiny family living in an old manor house in England, under the floor, but this one’s name is also well known because of a Disney musical made from it. More on that later.

Three children are sent off to stay for the summer in a small, rural English town when their mother has to be away from home at a new job. Things get interesting right away when they find a neighbor lady in the garden of the house they’re staying at early one morning. She’s twisted her ankle, and can’t walk, but she doesn’t want a doctor, she wants the children to help her get home. As Carey and Charles help her, young Paul picks up the broom lying nearby.

“We don’t want that,” Carey told him sharply. “Put it up against the tree.”

“But it’s Miss Price’s. It isn’t ours. It’s hers. It’s what she fell off. It’s what she rides on.”

Turns out, Miss Price is trying to learn to be a witch, and Paul has seen her novice broom-riding from his bedroom window. The children agree to keep her secret, in exchange for some magic they can use themselves. Paul happens to have a brass bedknob from his bed in his pocket, and Miss Price puts a spell on it, so that when Paul turns the knob at home, the bed will take them wherever they want to go. This seems a wonderful idea, but as usual with magic in books, things don’t go so well.

Paul’s first wish is to visit their own home, back in the city, and the appearance of a bed and four children on the doorstep late at night causes them to be taken in by the police. They just manage to squeak out of that one. For the next trip, Miss Price insists on coming along, and they choose a distant tropical isle where they can sunbathe and enjoy the water and weather. Do things go smoothly? Of course not!

In the second half of this two-part novel (originally two separate books, apparently), the children return to stay with Miss Price, but are greatly disappointed to find out that she has given up magic. Before long they have tempted her to try one more expedition with the magic bedknob, the bed for which is now in her house. This time they decide to investigate the past…and, as you can imagine complications ensue.

This is a fun story with fine writing, fairly lightweight, but with inventive ideas and great characters. Now, when Disney had made the film “Mary Poppins” out of another English series, they must have thought this would make a good follow-up, but “Bedknob and Broomstick” is a much quieter story than the Mary Poppins books by P.L. Travers, and the main character, Miss Price, is meant to be rather timid, and not a very good witch, something that makes the story more fun. The film actually takes very little from the book, and none of it’s quiet magical spirit, and tries to make it another “Mary Poppins,” using perhaps 10 percent of the book at most, and going to something much louder and sillier for the rest. Too bad, this is a book that is well worth reading if you like magical adventures and I highly recommend it.

Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton

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