Five Children on the Western Front
My general irritability with convalescence extended itself to the pile of books I had amassed for the occasion (sorry, Kitties—I liked The Passage well enough as airplane reading, but The Twelve irritated me beyond endurance), so I turned to the one kind of book that nearly always distracts me, a children’s book.
I first heard of the existence of Kate Saunders’ Five Children on the Western Front–a fanfiction published in 2016 and based on, of course, E. Nesbit’s 1902 Five Children and It–over at Reading the End. In the author’s note following her story, Saunders points out that the Psammead also makes an appearance in The Phoenix and the Carpet, 1904, and The Story of the Amulet, 1906, and that two of the original five children, as she puts it “were of exactly the right ages to end up being killed in the trenches” of WWI. So you know it’s going to be a tearjerker. Not everyone has liked Saunders’ interpretation of the Psammead or the original five children (she adds a youngest one, and in homage to E. Nesbit, names her “Edie”). I liked them well enough, though. As in the best fanfic, I felt all the time that I was in the presence of such overwhelming love for the original that it simply had to come out in telling more of the story.
As part of her masterful beginning, Saunders reminds readers of the previous adventures:
“Remember when we wished the Lamb was grown up—and he turned into a horrid young man with a mustache?” Jane said.
“I just wish I remembered it too,” the Lamb said.
“And remember when Panther wished we were all divinely beautiful?” Cyril nudged Robert. “You came out looking like the most utter girl.”
“Shut up.” Robert nudged him back. “She had you looking disgustingly wet—with long cow’s eyelashes.”
At the beginning of this adventure, the Psammead seems to have lost his ability to grant wishes, but then comes an evening when Edie is tired and facing a long trek home from London, and says she wishes that they could “just be at home right now” when they find themselves there. That is the start of the kind of accidental wishing that happens without warning in this book. Sometimes it is the Psammead’s own wish, and often the children (and young adults) find themselves not really present in the past or the future, but ghostly onlookers who have no effect on the scene in front of them.
One of my favorite scenes is when the Psammead, who is, in this story, inclined to materialize briefly in unexpected places, shows up at the theater when the Lamb and Edie have been taken to a performance of Peter Pan:
“Nothing strange happened until the moment Tinkerbell the fairy was dying, and Peter asked the audience to ‘Clap your hands if you believe in fairies!’
Jane, the Lamb and Edie clapped harder than anyone—as the Lamb said in Edie’s ear, ‘Impossible not to believe in fairies when you’ve got one sitting on your foot!’
What happened next almost knocked them out of their seats with shock. A huge voice rang through the theater, loud as thunder: ‘NOT ENOUGH! CLAP HARDER! BELIEVE MORE!”
It is the Psammead, of course, who thinks he dreamed it when they confront him later, at home. He says “it’s made a new fairy of me!” and he looks well afterwards. “He was plump and sleek, his fur shone, and his telescope eyes bounced about like springs.”
The professor (from The Story of the Amulet) writes a book about the Psammead, but his assistant researcher is concerned that he wants to dedicate it to the creature himself, like this:
“This book is worshipfully dedicated to the mighty PSAMMEAD, former god of the Akkadian desert, with humble thanks for all the help he has given to the authors.”
As the assistant points out, “you don’t get books about the Greek gods containing dedications to Zeus, with thanks for all his help, do you?”
This book is a lovely labor of love, well-written, well-characterized, and well-plotted. And yet the only way I can forgive Saunders for what she does in it—what she has to do, really–is to go back and re-read the original E. Nesbit stories. If you loved them, you will be left at the end of this book like me and the professor: “far away in 1930, in his empty room, the old professor was crying.”