*Please note that this article contains spoilers*
Magical realism is a genre that originates from Latin America and consists of both real and fantastic elements. During Gabriel García Márquez’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, he wrote that magical realism is “a reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty…”
In recent years, young adult literature has started to embrace and publish more of this genre. A few of the important authors writing magical realism for young adults include Laura Esquivel, Isabel Allende, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, David Leviathan, Rainbow Rowell, and many others.
As a student attending the young adult prose seminar at Creighton University this spring, I studied two titles within this genre: The Cure for Dreaming and Belzhar. For each title, there was a single magical element that created significant changes in character development and plot.
The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters follows protagonist Olivia Mead during the suffragist movement in Portland, Oregon. While watching a show, Olivia is hypnotized by the talented stage magician Henri Reverie (really, Henry Rhodes). Later, Olivia’s father, intrigued by his daughter’s behavior, orders Henry to hypnotize her again, this time with devastating consequences. During this second session, Henry tells her: “The roles of men and women will be clearer than they have ever been….” In a horrifying twist, Olivia begins to see people with dark intentions appear before her as monsters.
The magical element in The Cure for Dreaming is prevalent throughout the story and affects most of Olivia’s character development. It can be argued that this is a direct result of the pressure from that magical element in the book. The effects of the hypnosis influence her everyday life and prompt her to take certain actions. For example, after seeing her father as a monster for the first time, Olivia runs away, terrified at this transformation. A few moments later, Olivia sees women being caged, specifically women who oppose the suffrage movement.
It takes Olivia some time to manage her fear and come to terms with her new view of the world. Eventually, she writes her anger in a letter to Henry — because part of the hypnosis prevents her from voicing any angry thoughts aloud — standing up for herself and warning him of the dangerous and precarious situation he has put her in.
As the book goes on and she acts on her own will more and more, Olivia eventually finds the courage to confront her father. In their final argument, she admits to being the one who has publicly opposed his views. This is the pivotal climax of the novel, when Olivia becomes outspoken and authoritative, denying her obedient past self.
The plot in The Cure for Dreaming hinges on the magical element as well. For example, Henry’s continued involvement with the narrative depends on his continuance to hypnotize Olivia and others. He hypnotizes Olivia more than once, sometimes afflicting her with unwanted and oppressive magical ailments and sometimes lifting them. He also helps Olivia make a political point by using his abilities to scare some of the anti-suffragette women. Without the hypnotisms and the aftereffects creating changes in the natural world, Olivia’s story may have never occurred.
Meg Wolitzer’s Belzhar also features a young, female protagonist. Jam Gallahue attends a special boarding school in Vermont after the death of her boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. A wise teacher, Mrs. Quenell, admits her into a special English class studying works by Sylvia Plath. Jam and the other students of the class are given journals to write in twice a week — except these journals aren’t normal. Each time Jam sits down to work on her assignment, she is transported to another world — one that she and the students eventually name Belzhar — where she can see, speak with, and touch Reeve again.
Unlike The Cure for Dreaming, Belzhar has a magical element that the characters are somewhat capable of controlling. Jam and her classmates are able to visit Belzhar whenever they want by writing in their journals. However, because they are unsure about how exactly the journals work, Jam and her classmates set up rules to follow — ones that seem to closely resemble Mrs. Quenell’s suggested guidelines.
It isn’t until well into the book, when Sierra tries to prevent the final entry of her journal from playing out, that the characters learn how the journals can exert power over them as well. This tragic accident that Sierra suffers presents Jam with a final, devastating choice: stay with Reeve in Belzhar or overcome her grief and move on? Without the magical element of this book, Jam may have never found the courage to face the truth of her past and move on with her life.
It should be noted, though, that the success of the plot does not necessarily depend upon the magical elements in Belzhar. For example, the characters could suffer from hallucinations or stress-related illnesses and possibly end up with a very similar story.
One moment where the magical element does seem to influence the plot is the first time Jam and Griffin kiss. The reason Jam is in Griffin’s room in the first place is so that she can write in his journal and attempt to enter Belzhar, which doesn’t work and creates a surreal, overlapping world. Without the journals, this may have never happened, and Griffin and Jam may have never fallen in love.
Both The Cure for Dreaming and Belzhar enhance the realistic with the fantastic and continue a literary tradition of making the impossible probable. Without the magical elements present in these books, the stories might have been unsuccessful. It’s simply another way to view the world and a testament to how influential a little magic can be.