Will Do Magic For Small Change by Andrea Hairston
Andrea Hairston’s 2016 novel Will Do Magic for Small Change spills out across traditional fantasy subcategories like the foamy head of a beer. There are urban fantasy elements, historical fantasy, science fiction and coming-of-age themes in this tale, which is set alternately in 1987 and the turn of the 20th century. And while I don’t think there is a subgenre called “performance magic” or “theater magic” yet, when there is, this book will be a seminal example because the love of the theater and performance runs all the way through it.
In 1987, Cinnamon struggles to find acceptance. She is African-American, tall for her age (fourteen), heavy, super-smart and a motor-mouth in a very particular way. She wants to sing and act on stage and she’s gifted, but racism and sexism block her efforts. Cinnamon’s father is in a coma, her half-brother has committed suicide and her bitter, despairing mother Opal nags Cinnamon constantly about her weight. Cinnamon’s love of stories, which spill out of her in what she calls a “story storm,” only irritates her mother and other family members, particularly when ideas that pop out of her mouth almost immediately happen, like when she insists that her grandparents who live several states away will come to her brother’s funeral, even though there is a multi-state blizzard. (They do.)
Cinnamon’s one consolation is a strange book her brother left her, and in that book we get the story of The Wanderer, a being from another place, perhaps a different dimension or realm, who takes physical form. The Wanderer meets warrior woman Kehinde in 1892 Dahomey in Africa. Kehinde was an enslaved warrior woman for the Fon, who rule Dahomey, but she has escaped. She gives the Wanderer the name Taiwo, and they set off on an adventure that leads them from war-torn Dahomey to Paris and ultimately to the United States where they plan to perform in shows, including one at the Chicago World’s Fair. Along this journey, Taiwo evolves, becoming not only a human whose sex shifts at will, but a powerful dragon-like creature, the aje.
The book writes and illustrates itself as Cinnamon turns the pages, and she comes to realize that she, like her brother, is a Guardian, and she must help the immortal Wanderer Taiwo regain selfhood and memory, since Taiwo is scattering, losing cohesion. Taiwo and Kehinde’s story is bound up in some mysterious way with the shooting that left Cinnamon’s father in a coma, and her mother knows far more than she is telling. Her grandparents Redwood and Aidan, and her great-aunt Iris, theater and music people themselves, give her a set of spells. They seem ordinary, but they seem to work.
In the mundane world, at an audition for a new play, Cinnamon meets and later befriends Marie and Klaus. She shares the secret of the book with them and the three young people are drawn deeper into a web of powerful magic. Throughout both stories, the orisha or god Eshu, orisha of the crossroads, is a constant presence.
In addition to writing novels Andrea Hairston writes and produces plays. She is the artistic director of a theater company. Her love of theater shines through practically every word of Will Do Magic For Small Change. Theater is a form of ritual and magic and all three main groups here, Cinnamon’s “Theater Squad,” Redwood, Aidan and Iris, and Kehinde and Taiwo, all engage in music, dance and acting.
I liked Cinnamon and I thought the development and revelations about her struggling mother Opal were well done, but I liked this book the best when we traveled with Taiwo and Kehinde. I liked the complexity of those characters and I was charmed by the times Taiwo morphed into a dragon creature and cavorted in the waves alongside the steamship. (“Charmed” is a strange word to use for a fire-breathing creature who bit off an enemy’s head, but that’s how I felt.) Hairston packs a lot of interesting historical tidbits into the story.
I found the 1987 segments slow at times and a bit hard to follow. Time seemed to move in odd ways — and not magically odd. Cinnamon’s mother is hospitalized, and in the next chapter we read how Cinnamon has lost so much weight since then, and apparently it’s been a few weeks, but I didn’t realize that. Things seemed to have happened off the page that we hear about later. This is an issue of pacing and not to be confused with the scenes where time runs strangely for magical reasons and that is made clear in the text.
I didn’t grasp how the descendants of a child we meet in 1892 could be “elementals” when the child was the product of a union between two mundane humans, unless it was her emotional connection to the aje. This was never clear to me.
Near the end of Will Do Magic For Small Change something happens that makes Cinnamon doubt her relationship with Marie and Klaus. That scene felt contrived and very little time is spent resolving it, yet by the end it seems to have disappeared. Given everything else going on here, this subplot was not needed. It distracted me from the main story elements.
Redwood and Aidan are characters from an earlier book of Hairston’s, Redwood and Wildfire. This is not a direct sequel and the magical elders, while they are vital to the story, are secondary characters. In the story’s present tense, part of Cinnamon’s journey is realizing that her handsome male friend Klaus and her fashionable, polished female friend Maria have just as many problems in their families as she does. Learning to trust and be willing to make “small change” is a big part of the story.
More than half the book is about a fourteen-year-old girl. Established teen readers, even ones Cinnamon’s age, would enjoy it although they might find parts of it slow. The book deals with beheadings, rape, lynchings, racism, intravenous drug use and gun violence. Several characters have fluid gender identities. There is foul language in spots, nowhere near what you hear in most R-rated movies. Parents might want to vet the book, or better yet, read it with your teen. I think Will Do Magic For Small Change can inspire creative young people, and feed curiosity about the African diaspora and the African American experience, and the theater, the music and magic are wonderful.