Leonie Kooiker’s 1974 children’s novel De Heksensteen, offered to Anglophone audiences in 1978 under the title The Magic Stone, makes an interesting palate-cleanser after this week’s snarkfest. I am not familiar with the body of Kooiker’s work and all information available about her seems to be in Dutch … so I would guess that, for some reason, this book and its sequel, Legacy of Magic, weren’t big hits in the English-reading world. Pity.
Chris may be just a little boy but he has grand plans for his life. No life in a small house in the suburbs for him! Vaguely baffled that his father never saw the utility of vast wealth, Chris intends to be very rich when he grows up. He will have a large home in the middle of a forest, a forest full of wildlife that will not scare him because he sure he is a very brave boy. It is clear that he is very naughty boy, and a cunning one: he conceals his rascally intentions from his mother when he asks to be allowed to sleep over at his friend Frank’s house.
The attraction of spending time at Frank’s isn’t Frank, who is a bit of a wet blanket. It’s Frank’s grandmother’s wheelchair, which Chris is absolutely determined to take for a joyride. Chris is a stubborn little kid and he generally gets what he wants. The ride goes off without any obvious plot-generating accidents or mishaps; the only oddity is that Chris finds a curious stone in the wheelchair, which he pockets.
It’s not too long after he acquires — well, steals, really — the stone that Chris begins to notice odd phenomena, such as knowing what happened to his mother on a distant farm or being able to mind-control his teacher. This is pretty cool, but also pretty scary. Chris is determined to work out exactly what’s going on.
What’s going on is that Frank’s grandmother is a witch, known to her colleagues as Sister Southwind, and the stone is a powerful magical artifact. By using the stone, Chris has revealed himself to the witch. Not only that, he has shown that he has the potential to become Sister Southwind’s long-sought apprentice. He will have to be convinced to apprentice with her, but Sister Southwind is a very determined old lady and expects to prevail over the stubborn little boy.
However, Chris’s attempts to explore his new abilities also attract the attention of Sister Southwind’s confederates in the Fine Thread Association, a misleadingly named (deliberately so) cabal of magic-users who claim to be protecting the world. Not from , not so much evil magic-users (for whom the worst punishment seems to be ostracization), but from mundane power brokers who might go astray without the Association whispering suggestions in their ears.
While the members of the Fine Thread Association profess to work from the purest of motives, they’d also like to get their hands on that magic stone. Not as a group … each of them wants it. Complicating matters is Sister Southwind’s friend Janna, who was cast out of the Fine Thread Association for breaking the rules. Janna not only covets the stone but she’s a steadfast misandrist who doesn’t think little boys like Chris have any business dabbling in magic at all.
It shouldn’t be all that remarkable that one of Chris’ first reactions to his new magical abilities is to worry about the moral implications — but it is. Despite being a duplicitous little scamp, he has a fairly well defined sense of right and wrong and making his teacher act like a monkey, even unintentionally, clearly falls on the side of wrong for Chris. The members of the Fine Thread Association, on the other hand, profess to be very good indeed, but act like conniving thieves when they scheme to grab the stone for themselves. They also profess to be very powerful , but this is belied by a scene in which the self-appointed guardians of the world are stymied by a small flock of birds. OK, a small flock of angry birds but still. These characters take themselves and their role in controlling the politicians of the world very seriously, but the novel doesn’t.
I would expect that fans of Pratchett would see Kooiker’s Sister Southwind as a kindred spirit to Esme Weatherwax; Weatherwax’s nastier side might correspond to Sister Southwind’s friend Janna. Although she partially redeems herself at the end of the book, overall, Janna is as close to a villain as this book has. She flat-out disdains men; she believes that they are, by their very nature, far too cognitively limited to be trusted with power. Apparently in the next book she teaches Chris magic, which, given how much of this book she spends terrorizing him, should make for an interesting learning experience for Chris.
One of Sister Southwind’s little tests for Chris is a suggestion — more of a command, really — that Chris learn the traditionally feminine skill of crocheting. He eventually demonstrates a fair amount of skill at it, which suggests that the author rejects Janna’s point of view.
I am not quite sure of the age range of the target audience (although Carl Hollander’s illustrations suggest early grade school). However, if someone wanted a book for a child who was curious about, but a bit too young for, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, this could be a pretty good choice. Unfortunately it seems to be very thoroughly out of print in English. Perhaps this is an example of the right book at the wrong time. It may be the right time now for some Anglophone publisher to give this series a second chance.
1: As for their claim to be guarding the world against political and military calamity, I both saddened and shocked to announce that Global Trends in Battle Deaths from State-Based Conflicts, 1946-2008 in no way supports their claim. The book under review appears to be set in the 1970s, which, as you can see from this graph, was a period when Battle Deaths from State-Based Conflicts soared.