The Wicked Enchantment by Margot Benary-Isbert
The Wicked Enchantment is a delight, and a perfect example of why I adore buying used books from local stores—I’m sure I’d never have found this gem otherwise. For one, it’s out of print, which is a shame. It’s a good book. Not ‘good for a book from 1955’ or ‘good for a children’s book,’ but good, genuinely good. For the first half of the book I was convinced it had been written in the 1980s, as the writing style felt modern.
Margot Benary-Isbert was ahead of her time with this, essentially, middle-grade fiction.
The premise? Anemone, an 11 year old girl, runs away from home. Her father has suddenly started favoring the new house keeper and her son over Anemone. The final straw is when the house keeper tries to have Anemone’s dog—Winnie—taken away.
With nowhere else to go, Anemone flees to her eccentric Aunt Gundula’s flat. It’s a magical apartment filled with animals and baked goods, but the rest of their town isn’t half so content. Strange things are happening—other than Anemone’s once-loving father turning cold, a statue and gargoyle disappeared from the church, a ghostly owl calls from the bell-tower, and a tyrannical mayor that no one seems to have voted for keeps expanding his power ...
Anemone, her three aunts, and a bevy of plucky animals, seem to be the only ones to notice that anything is amiss, and only they can stop the wickedness.
Almost everyone important in this book is a girl or woman. Even the majority of the many animals are female. What’s better, they come together due to their love for each other, and work together for the greater good of their town. They accept each other for who they are, and let each woman play to her own strengths, whether that be baking cakes or seditiously selling Easter eggs in the marketplace.
Some reviews claim the book is “too feminist.” I couldn’t disagree more. It is unabashedly feminist, but it also portrays imperfect women who make mistakes and try to learn from them. I won’t give away the ending, but I don’t see how anyone could finish the book and declare it “too feminist.”
But, then again, I’m not sure what I expect from anyone who throws around the term "too feminist."
Anyway, in addition to being feminist, The Wicked Enchantment also plays with gender. When Anemone arrives, Aunt Gundula is wise enough to realize that if she sends Anemone back home, it’ll only end with the little girl running away for good. Aunt Gundula also realizes that if anyone knows Anemone is staying with her, Anemone’s father will come for the girl. So, to give Anemone time for the hurt to heal, and to give the father time to cool down, Aunt Gundula lops off Anemone’s long hair and puts her in boys’ clothing, thus dubbing her Perdu.
When Anemone is out and about, dressed and acting like a boy, the pronouns used to describe her change. Suddenly he is leading Winnie—now cleverly disguised with paint thanks to Aunt Gundula—to the circus and he eavesdrops on his mean-spirited housekeeper. It’s small, but it felt big. As a child, I’m sure it would have blown my mind.
The underlying themes also would have sparked my young mind. The Mayor, whom no one remembers voting for, is a tyrant. He accuses his enemies of crimes there’s no proof they committed; he uses the townsfolk’s personal property for his gain; he treats the communal property of the town as resources he can liquidate to fund the government.
Perdu and his aunts see straight through it, and are going to bring about the Mayor’s downfall. It doesn’t matter that they’re three middle-aged women and a kid; they’re going to use their strengths to stop the mayor’s treachery.
This is all handled in a somewhat absurd manner—the final revolt in the book revolves around Easter eggs—so despite the heavy theme, it’s still age-appropriate.
Lest you think the book is exclusively about death to tyrants, though, another theme weaves through the book: that of love. Anemone’s love for her father and for her aunts; her aunts’ love for her, and their love for their husbands, or, in the case of Aunt Gundula, the unrequited love that causes her sorrow. The easy, straight-forward love between animals and humans, and even between the animals themselves. And boy are there animals!
Aside from Winnie, Anemone’s dog, there’s another dog, a parrot, a cat, a hive of bees, an elephant, a mouse, and an even larger cast of tertiary animals such as pigeons, song birds, and pigs.
They’re all delightful, and I adore how the characters interact with the critters. You can tell that the author was an unabashed animal lover. Even these fictional animals are treated with such respect.
Another small thrill was to read a book where the main character reads. Anemone references her favorite book. When bored, she reads books from her aunt’s shelf, including Shakespeare. She does research in an encyclopedia.
When I was a spunky-little-girl who read all the books I could find about spunky-little-girls, they mostly featured tropeish tom-boys who played outside and got dirty and wrestled with the boys and went on adventures. All good, mind you, but I was spunky and untraditional and bookish, and Anemone’s the first girl protagonist I’ve ever seen who has a similar personality.
All of this goodness is delivered with deft prose that left me laughing out loud regularly. The book’s POV was that of an omniscient narrator. I find it difficult to get into most omni POVs, as I find the writing too on-the-nose, too self-aware, or too focused on being witty at the expense of characterization and world-building. This omni POV, however, delivered all the fun possible from the broad view point without any of the setbacks.
At the very end of the book, an explicitly Christian element is added. This caught me by surprise—the rest of the book lacks religious references—but the Christian element fits the tone of the book: it emphasizes the importance of love, and that’s a message I can get behind.
My only complaint about The Wicked Enchantment is that it wraps up a little too quickly. After a certain point, it feels like watching a movie on fast-forward. I see everything that’s happening, but I want to actually experience it! This is pretty normal for middle-grade fiction, though, and it seems unfair to hold middle-grade fiction to adult standards.
Bottom line: The Wicked Enchantment is a fun, quick, and surprisingly empowering little book. I really enjoyed it.
It's available exclusively as an out-of print physical book. Which, frankly, bothers me. This book should be a classic.
You might enjoy The Wicked Enchantment if you like:
strong female leads
Cover art by Don Maitz: