The Red Magician
by Lisa Goldstein
Published in 1982
From Goodreads: Winner of the 1983 American Book Award, The Red Magician was an immediate classic.
On the eve of World War II, a wandering magician comes to a small Hungarian village prophesying death and destruction. Eleven-year-old Kicsi believes Vörös, and attempts to aid him in protecting the village.
But the local rabbi, who possesses magical powers, insists that the village is safe, and frustrates Vörös’s attempts to transport them all to safety. Then the Nazis come and the world changes.
Miraculously, Kicsi survives the horrors of the concentration camp and returns to her village to witness the final climactic battle between the rabbi and the Red Magician, the Old World and the New.
The Red Magician is a notable work of Holocaust literature and a distinguished work of fiction, as well as a marvelously entertaining fantasy that is, in the end, wise and transcendent.
I found this book by browsing through my library’s eBook selection during a bit of downtime at work, and I have to admit that the little ‘National Book Award’ medallion on the cover image helped sway my decision to download and read it. The library’s synopsis was interesting, but only described the first few chapters. The Goodreads synopsis better describes the whole story, though it just touches the surface. The Red Magician is much deeper than its synopsis indicates. There’s a good reason it won such a prestigious award.
Life is perfectly normal for Kicsi when the book opens. She goes to school, she puts up with her older sisters, she resents the fact that she never gets to have new clothes (she gets hand me downs from her sisters), and she dreams of the wide world outside her little village. Things start to turn strange, though, when the local rabbi lays a curse on the school because they’ve started teaching Hebrew, a language the rabbi feels is blasphemous.
That’s when Vörös shows up. He is a wanderer who Kicsi immediately likes, and it turns out that he is a magician, just like the rabbi. Vörös removes the curse from the school, and at the rabbi’s daughter’s wedding, making a dire prophecy about the future and advises everyone to leave. When they don’t leave, Vörös tries to build protections for the little town he’s come to love. The rabbi shows up then, and whether out of spite, fear, or a little of both, he destroys the protections that Vörös has built.
Then the Nazis show up.
I won’t go further into the plot, because that would spoil it, and there are a lot of things I’ve left out. But suffice it to say that Kicsi survives the Holocaust and finds Vörös again, and the rabbi finds them, too.
I wouldn’t say that The Red Magician is a coming of age story, thought Kicsi certainly grows up. That label doesn’t tell the whole story of the story, though. The Red Magician is about growing up, learning to appreciate what you have, learning to live with guilt- and indeed, it’s about learning to live again after surviving horrors- and so many other things, too. There is a lot packed into this little book.
The prose is lovely, too. It had a ‘once upon a time…’ feeling to it, like a Brothers Grimm tale, where deep issues are written about so lightly you don’t realize you’ve absorbed the story’s lesson until you look back at it later. Goldstein isn’t a spendthrift when it comes to her words. They are chosen carefully and seem to effortlessly spin a beautiful tale about love, loss, and why we should choose to live after witnessing the worst humanity has to offer.