The fourth book in the “Tales of Magic” series by Edward Eager, as it’s now known, is just as delightful as the first three, and it has a particularly fun plot idea, which I’ll get to shortly.
The four children from the second book, “Knight’s Castle,” Roger, Ann, Eliza and Jack, are the protagonists, and all four of them have been sent to stay with an elderly relative in an old house on the south shore of Massachusetts while their parents all go to London where Roger and Ann’s father’s play is going to be produced. The children would rather be in London too, but the old house and its expansive garden by the sea turn out to be a good consolation, especially when the children discover a Natterjack living in a garden devoted to all kinds of thyme. As one might guess, this toad-like creature is another magic being who, with help from the different varieties of thyme, can send the children on magic adventures in different time periods. They are soon having adventures in the time of America’s Revolutionary War, helping a fugitive slave on the Underground Railway of Civil War times, and even entering the childhood of Louisa May Alcott…or is it really the story she wrote of “Little Women”? They also attempt to visit their parents in London, but end up in Queen Victoria’s time. The best adventure of all is when the magic goes wrong, as it so often does in these stories, and the children find themselves on a desert island with four other children also having magic adventures. In a wonderfully clever plot idea, this is the same story told from the other children’s viewpoint in the previous book, “Magic by the Lake.” The two stories present different angles and aspects, each filling in areas missing from the other. When I first read this, I thought it was the best plot idea ever, and I still think it’s good.
All these books are great fun, with memorable characters, appealing yet dangerous magic, humor, and clever dialogue. It’s no surprise that Eager’s main job was as a playwright. Highly recommended, but best read in order, and the whole set is readily available, though unfortunately without the original Bodecker covers, link below.