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Will Do Magic for Small Change Paperback – May 1, 2016
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Hairston (Mindscape) brews up a potent blend of West African religion and history, magic, science fiction, theater, and the life of one Pittsburgh teen in the 1980s. The curtain opens with Cinnamon Jones at the funeral for her half-brother, Sekou, who has died of an overdose and left her as the Guardian of a book called simply The Chronicles, which gives the history of the Wanderer. The Wanderer is an extradimensional being who first materialized in embattled Dahomey, a kingdom in West Africa, in 1892, and whose story is gradually revealed to Cinnamon as she reads the book. Three years later, she introduces two other teens, Klaus Beckenbauer and Marie Masuda, to The Chronicles; they read it together and resolve to reunite the aspects of the Wanderer that have been scattered. The three adolescents discover love and mystery while being supported by Sekou's shade and the spirit-filled elders of Cinnamon's family. The glory of West Africa's orishas pulses off the pages, as does the weird power of the Wanderer, an unusual take on an alien life form. The entire work is filled with magic, celebrating West Africans, Native Americans, art, and love that transcends simple binary genders. Hairston's novel is a completely original and stunning work. --Publishers Weekly April 2016
[A] beautifully multifaceted story...with deep, layered, powerful characters. Highly recommended. --The New York Times, 4/24/2016
About the Author
Andrea Hairston is a Professor Theater and AFro-American Studies at Smith College, as well as the Artistic Director of Chrysalis theatre. Her plays have been produced at Yale Rep, Rites and Reason, the Kennedy Center, Stage West, and on Public Radio and Television. She is the author of Mindscape, which won the Carl Brandon Parallax Award and was short-listed for the Philip K. Dick Award, Redwood and Wildfire, which won the James Tiptree Award and the Carl Brandon Kindred Award, and Lonely Stardust: Two Plays, a Speech, and Eight Essays,
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Will Do Magic for Small Change opens with Cinnamon Jones, a black girl in 1980’s Philadelphia, attending her half-brother’s funeral. Her brother left her a book written by an alien wanderer from another dimension who appeared in West Africa during the 1890’s. The wanderer’s story is not complete and more sections continue to appear as the course of Cinnamon’s teen years. Eventually, Cinnamon realizes that the wanderer’s story has some mysterious connections to her own family history.
My expectation was that I would enjoy the alien’s story more than Cinnamon’s, but the reverse was true. Cinnamon aspires to be an actress, but the theater is a difficult place for a large, dark skinned black girl. It does provide the opportunity of friendship with two other teenagers, and the three of them become caught up in the mysteries of the Chronicle.
That said, I never skipped over the other sections relating to the wanderer (Taiwo), who gets caught up in the life of a warrior woman of Dahomey, Kehinde, who is searching for her dead brother’s wife and an escape from her own past. New sections of Taiwo and Kehinde’s story appear as the wanderer remembers them, but they’ve fragmented and lost many portions of their own history
Gender and sexual fluidity are at the heart of Will Do Magic for Small Change. Cinnamon is bisexual (although the word is never used) and becomes involved in a fledgling polyamorous romance. The wanderer, Taiwo, is not male or female, but either both or neither. They, like Cinnamon, are bisexual, and various characters they encounter are also queer.
In a large part, Will Do Magic for Small Change is a story of identity and history, with Taiwo trying to form their own identity and recall their personal history. Meanwhile, Cinnamon is searching into her own family history, trying to uncover the truth of the event that led to her father’s coma, and still in the process of self discovery. There’s a sense of searching for a connection between an African American present and an African past.
For me, the characters are what I found most compelling about Will Do Magic for Small Change. I became strongly invested in Cinnamon’s story, and I loved Kehinde, a fierce warrior woman who continues to move forward despite the tragedies in her past. Even characters such as Opal, Cinnamon’s mother, who could have been little more than a two dimensional obstacle for Cinnamon to overcome ultimately proved to be more than that.
SPOILER. If I have one complaint, it lies with the ending. The book ends suddenly and abruptly, without any real conclusion or closure. I’m guessing that there’s some thematic or literary purpose, but I read for entertainment and this didn’t work for me. I’m willing to go with such experimentation in form, but I’m not willing to invest the time in a 400 page + book only for an ending reminiscent of “The Lady or the Tiger?” END SPOILER.
That being said, I’m still planning on reading more by Andrea Hairston. The level of quality and imagination she displays here is such that I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to read more. I believe there’s another book about Cinnamon’s grandparents, and I hope to get my hands on it soon.
As in Hairston’s other books, the reader (like the Wanderer) is thrown into the action and only gradually sorts out what’s going on. Despite their opening symmetries, the intertwined plots seem at first confusingly unlike one another. Kahinde and the Wanderer are in almost constant motion, often on the run, as they journey from Africa to Paris and eventually to Chicago, looking for a home. Cinnamon’s is an inner journey and she stays in history; the largest action she takes (it turns out to be large) is to journey across the city. The major figures of Kahinde’s story are adults (although the Wanderer’s initial experience of the world is almost as fragmented as a newborn child’s), while Cinnamon’s story primarily concerns the young and the old. Cinnamon forms an intense friendship with two people her own age, and her major supports are her grandparents. These are Redwood and Aiden Wildfire, the protagonists of Hairston’s earlier novel who, with Redwood’s younger sister Iris, have grown old but remain indomitable. Redwood still has her storm hand, which she puts to good use, and Aiden has his banjo.
Yet the two plots turn out to share fundamental patterns. Both are about personal integration—quite literally in the case of the Wanderer, whose other-dimensional nature tends to make him scatter into the void. But all the major characters need to accept their own demons. Both stories follow the creation of extended families: Kahinde and the Wanderer gradually pick up others as they journey to Chicago, while Cinnamon, isolated at the start, makes her own connections, in part through a theatrical performance, and in part by daring to admit her secrets and share her pain. While there is some sex in the stories, the deepest love in the novel is familial. In both plots theatre is central, at once transformative and a con. Once she can no longer be an amazon warrior, Kahinde fights her battles for gaping audiences. As in Redwood and Wildfire, the inauthenticity of performing your ethnic identity and encouraging stereotypes comes up for consideration. Both plots focus on telling stories as a way of knowing yourself and making a community—and as a means of immortality. Cinnamon opens the novel saying: “Books let dead people talk to us from the grave.”
This is an extraordinarily rich novel, which concerns itself with, among other matters, with race, gender, and the transforming imagination. It doesn’t leave much unscrutinized. The kingdom of Dahomy, which might be the subject of nostalgic idealization, turns out to have preyed on neighboring kingdoms, recruiting its amazons in part from girls whose parents have been murdered. A French doctor does much good for the African community he lives in, and is also a serial abuser of women. Kahinde kills him. On the other hand Hairston works to see her characters in the round, and several who start out looking like satiric negative stereotypes turn out to have unexpected goodness.
If there is a lot of death in this novel, it’s also full of comic warmth. There were many scenes, especially in the Cinnamon plot, which made me laugh with the kind of glee you feel for characters you really like. There’s plenty of literal magic in the book—although Cinnamon’s brother Sekou is dead, he continues to talk to her and her friends. And, as in Redwood and Wildfire, there’s a nimbus of hoodoo that appears suddenly around characters and reshapes ordinary events. The uncertainty about what will—or can—happen is part of novel’s meaning: however grim the limits seem to be, we can’t know what’s possible until we’ve tried it. In part the novel is simply about the wonder of life in the world, however uncertain and brutal it can be—a wonder that the Wanderer, whose account of Kehinde’s story forms half the novel, feels constantly.
Throughout, as usual, Hairston uses language masterfully—colloquial phrasing that has the metaphoric power of poetry. “Cut your chains and you become free; cut your roots and you die.” “We make the real world, every minute, with every breath.” The title sums up the contrasts in the book. The Wanderer, in 1987 seemingly a homeless derelict, meets Cinnamon and guides her away from a dangerous fall, saying, “I do magic for small change.” Hairston adds, “He was blurry and then sharp as a spotlight.”