E.L. Konigsburg, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (1967)
First up is Jennifer, Hecate (etc.), a book that I loved as a child. I identified with the protagonist and narrator, fifth-grader Elizabeth, because I also had trouble making friends after moving to a new town. Unlike her, though, I was not lucky enough to meet the mysterious and fascinating Jennifer, who may or may not be a witch. Elizabeth’s apprenticeship in witchcraft, and its transformation into true friendship, is the central thread of the story.
I accepted the “magical” elements without question as a child; they were simply a source of excitement and mystery. As an adult, though, I found myself pondering the role of witchcraft in the book. For some readers, it may seem strange or alarming that Elizabeth so unhesitatingly accepts Jennifer’s dictates (which, in spite of her admiration for the evil witches of Macbeth, are relatively harmless and often quite funny). But when a person feels powerless against some aspect of fate, it’s tempting to think that destiny can be changed through inner training; this is what Jennifer is actually offering to Elizabeth. I think that both girls actually know that their “magic” goals can’t come to fruition, but as sometimes happens in childhood, they become trapped in the play and don’t know how to get out of it. Konigsburg resolves this problem in a somewhat awkward and abrupt way, but the underlying truth of it remains.
In fact, there is more to this brief story than meets the eye. Barely mentioned in the text (though clear from Konigsburg’s illustrations) is the fact that Elizabeth is white and Jennifer is black, possibly the only black child in the entire school. Elizabeth has been lonely for a couple of months; how long has Jennifer been alone and friendless? What has she had to endure, that has caused her to find refuge in arcane knowledge and esoteric rituals? These questions are never overtly stated or even hinted at, but at the book’s publication in 1967 they would perhaps come more readily to mind than today. Even now, they form a powerful subtext that makes it a real achievement when the girls are finally able to drop their assumed roles and just be ordinary friends.
Though it’s dated in many ways, from children curtsying at the Halloween assembly to mothers unquestioningly supplying raw eggs in milkshakes, what keeps this book timeless is that Konigsburg understands children. She knows their sufferings and their sources of pleasure, their pettiness and their magnanimity, their vulnerability and their resilience. She also knows that they love to laugh, and her idiosyncratic sense of humor is one of the great pleasures of this book. Even when writing about a difficult subject, Konigsburg never loses her sense of hope and trust in the possibilities of the human spirit. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her work, and discovering more of her insights into the journey of growing up.