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Sunday, March 9, 2014

"Basement Magic" by Ellen Klages -- Addendum added

This first appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction, won a Nebula award, and was reprinted by Kathryn Cramer, David G. Hartwell, Gardner Dozois, and Paula Guran.

Klages does a fine job building our sympathy for an adorable girl, Mary Louise:
"[Mary Louise] closes her book and tucks Bankie securely under one arm. She follow Ruby down the wide front stairs, her small green-socked feet making no sound at all on the thick beige carpet."
Mary Louise's father is absent and her new stepmother, Kitty, is cold. She hires Ruby as a maid. Ruby takes an immediate shine to Mary Louise, making grilled cheese sandwiches. When Mary Louise has problems with Kitty, Ruby solves them with simple household items that protect Mary Louise and makes Kitty's hair fall out. This only serves to make Kitty angry, so that Mary Louise needs more protection. Ruby teaches what she knows, but one day Kitty finds the alcohol cabinet unlocked and blames Ruby, firing her.

Spoiler: A protection Mary Louise made electrocutes Kitty.

Did Kitty deserve death? Who caused the death? The child, the teacher, or the magic? These are the questions the narrative leaves me. Are these what I'm supposed to ponder? Kitty was not loving or especially generous, but not killing others and not even intending damage to others in so far as I can tell. This is far more than an eye-for-an-eye justice. Maybe this is intended as an accidental "The Veldt".

Addendum: In the comments below, John Williams astutely points out that Kitty may not have died. This is a critical possibility I overlooked, which may be true as she is able to howl. If true, this would eliminate a serious ethical problem although new questions arise.

The good news is that Mary Louise is able to use her basement magic on her own, it appears. The bad is that she uses it to run and hide. At this age she may be able to do no more. Therefore, she needs a spokesperson to speak on her behalf. Negotiations.should be opened. Granted, the stepmother has powers over the child (as do all parents), but so does the child over the parent. While children make good points adults ought to consider, often their perspective is skewed, limited to themselves. Having power without perspective may cause her to torture her stepmother--as we've seen.

The best scenario, seeing that cruel punishments have been meted out to the stepmother, is to keep Ruby and work things out. They'd need to concoct an explanation for why she was in the liquor cabinet that needn't involve magic: i.e. "Sorry, it was me. I was playing in there, but I saw you in there, but I didn't drink anything. Please don't fire Ruby." Come up with some agreed upon compromise. After all, the child shouldn't be in the liquor cabinet. Besides Ruby could use a good recommend if she is leaving.

Anyway, negotiations should be exhausted, and if Kitty is cruel and deserves punishment, she shouldn't have married in the first place. Maybe she didn't know she didn't work well with other people's children (or children, period). As someone who works with and cares for other people's children, it's easier to see this character needs more voice.  By the way, I am glad this wasn't a plain and simple bad stepmother.


  1. Kitty doesn't die. She is just left wordless and howling.

  2. John Williams,

    Thank you for your comment. It made me revisit the story.