“It’s the things you were born to that give you satisfaction in this world, Greta. Leastwise, that’s what I think. And maybe the fog’s one of them. Not happiness, mind! Satisfaction isn’t always happiness by a long sight; then again, it isn’t sorrow either. But the rocks and the spruces and the fogs or your own land are things that nourish you. You can always have them, no matter what else you find or what else you lose.”
Portal fantasy is a popular genre for middle children’s fiction, as evidenced by the fact that 3 out of my 4 Retro Childhood Reviews are about children finding their way to new worlds. In The Neverending Story, Bastian is escaping a grief-filled reality; in Firebrat, Molly is learning to appreciate her Grandmother; the reasons for traveling through portals are as varied as the stories themselves. But portal fantasy, at its core, allows a child reader to travel to new worlds along with the protagonists. Fog Magic, by Julia L. Sauer, a Newberry Honor Book, is an absolutely charming addition to the genre. Though this is not a book that captures my heart to the level of some of the others on my shelves, it is nonetheless one that I turn to from time to time, to escape to the simplicity of an earlier age.
Fog Magic is the story of a young girl named Greta who has a strange fascination with the fog that regularly blankets her home in Nova Scotia. This fascination eventually leads her to find that within the fog is a village from the past, ready to welcome her with open arms. Around the age of ten, she wanders off in the fog in search of her wayward cow, and sees a house where none had been before. This prompts her father, who seems to understand her need to explore quite intimately, to convince her mother to allow her to wander in the fog. Surely not an easy task given that this is a kind of fog that people become lost in, that fisherman run aground in; fog is dangerous and not to be trifled with. Despite all that, Greta is allowed to explore and she promptly finds that she can travel through it to a town “Over the Mountain” that is straight out of the past. Here she meets Retha Morrill and her family, a family that seems to know people like her, as if she has not been the first of her family to travel the fog roads to the village of Blue Cove.
What’s fascinating is that Sauer never once mentions the year that all of this takes place. You barely get an indication that the present is actually contemporary to when she wrote the book, in the midst of the second World War. There are a few clues, but Greta is as much unaware of the time that she is visiting as the reader is and at one point makes a somewhat funny mistake, relaying information about her contemporary Duke of Kent mistaking him for the one mentioned by the people of Blue Cove (placing the past time likely in the 1790s). Two things about this deliberately vague time frame stand out for me as a modern reader. First, Nova Scotia is deliberately framed as a place somewhat separate from the effects of WWII. There don’t appear to be any young men missing, off fighting in the war and, as I said, there is little indication that this is when Greta’s present is actually set. Only a few brief passages indicate that this story is as much as an escape from WWII as, say, The Chronicles of Narnia:
“My mother says that living and dying are such natural things that one shouldn’t be any more sorrowful than the other. Unless they are deaths because of a war. That’s different, of course. I mean, when — when people die that way it isn’t natural — or it isn’t part of what she calls everyday living. But, thank goodness, we don’t have to be afraid of war. There’s no need for our country ever, ever to have another war, is there?
Greta thought of the war that was shadowing the whole world and she groped helplessly for a reply.
“But sometimes somebody else makes you fight when you don’t want to. You just have to fight,” she tried to explain.
“That’s silly,” said Retha. “Nobody has to fight.” Greta knew she could never explain to Retha the riddle of her generation.
Second, both her present and Blue Cove in the past seem remarkably similar — both are pastoral settings, with expansive grassy fields, forests of spruce trees, worn roads, berry picking in pails, laundry hanging from lines, and a pattern of life that is more controlled by the weather than by distant wars. Though some of that would doubtless have been familiar to children when this book was released, it acts as a secondary level of escape for a contemporary child, most of whom will never pick a berry and put it in a pail. This is subtly emphasized by the fact that sometimes Greta visits Blue Cove just to sit with Mrs. Morrill and watch her weave. Something that, though it contrasts with the lack of rugs on her own floors, still seems part of the same patterns of life in her present.
Fog Magic is as much a gathering of stories one might hear fireside at the local pub with a weathered fisherman, or around a cup of tea with an old widow, as it is Greta’s story of growing up and finding her horizons. Her interactions are not limited to Retha and her family; she gets glimpses into the lives of other inhabitants, which includes the widow of a sea captain, a disabled gentleman that seems to be seeking something, and a widow whose land is stolen from her. I won’t spoil any of these stories for you, nor will I spoil the end, for this is definitely a book that you should pick up on a foggy day and when you’re finished reading it, snuggled warm under a blanket, you might want to consider taking an adventure into the fog and through your own passage to magic.
Written by Julia L. Sauer
Originally published in 1943