Will Do Magic For Small Change, Andrea Hairston (Aqueduct 978-1-61976-101-8, $21.00, 472pp, tp) June 2016. Cover by Nic Ularu. [Order from Aqueduct Press, PO Box 95787, Seattle WA 98145-2787; www.aqueductpress.com.]
The glossary at the back of Andrea Hairston’s Will Do Magic For Small Change includes words and phrases from African and Native American tribes, plus a smattering of European (mostly German). Hairston deftly weaves all this and more into two powerful linked tales: the primary one, set in Pittsburgh PA, combines mainstream sensibilities with elements of the fantastic, while the other – officially known as The Chronicles of the Great Wanderer – is the SFnal/mythic diary of a shapeshifting entity from another dimension who takes human form in West Africa in 1892.
Since the Pittsburgh plotline follows a black girl from 1984 to 1987, younger readers may also view it as ‘‘historic,’’ but teens aren’t Hairston’s prime audience. Though Cinnamon Jones is almost 13 when we first see her as a new Guardian for the diary (in a family where few have held that special trust) and she later bonds with quirky young friends from various cultural backgrounds (who can feel its force), the novel swiftly moves beyond YA fantasy to become a powerful, multi-generational, magical family drama where the Wanderer could play a crucial role in determining a lost sibling’s heritage and an ailing father’s fate.
It starts with a wake at Johnson’s Funeral Home, as the contentious family gathers to eat fried food and mourn Sekou: Cinnamon’s gay male, half-brother, in his late teens when he quarreled with his lover, died of an overdose, and left her with the leather-bound Chronicles. Already hefty and much taller than her mother Opal (a bus driver), Cinnamon may not look heroic, but she defends the book even after Opal says Sekou found it in a dumpster and ‘‘dragging trash around with you everywhere won’t turn it into magic.’’ While mom talks like a hardened cynic, her daughter sees the pain she tries to hide. Sekou’s just part of it, for second husband Raven (Cinnamon’s father, an artist with spirit magic in his work) has spent the last few years in near-comatose state, since taking a bullet while trying to stop a murder.
Cinnamon dreams of finding some way to revive him. The answer might lie in the Chronicles. Though the setting could be our world, its characters and action mix the heightened spirit of myth and the melodrama of ancestral legend with something more like surreal science fiction. The Wanderer first manifests in a cavern where a ‘‘king’s wife, warrior woman’’ flees to escape punishment for devotion to another: a twin brother who shares a soul with her. After she’s forced to mercy-kill that twin, the strange visitor adopts his form and name. The diary will follow them (along with an equally iconic woman and child) through colonial Africa to France, and then America – where an initial sense of New World promise turns to disaster in Chicago.
Back at the wake in Pittsburgh, other potential sources of aid arrive late: grandmother Redwood, Irish/Seminole hoodoo man grandfather Aidan, and Great-Aunt Iris. Each has a special power. When Redwood gets angry (going into ‘‘storm mode’’), ‘‘electricity snapped up people’s backs and flashed in their eyes. Icy fog surged through the window.’’
Hairston combines all this, giving every type of magic, hoodoo, and weirdness its own flavor and tone, yet grounding them in our gritty world, where even the Wanderer and fellow refugees must deal with the blunt, non-mystical facts of daily life. It’s a remarkable achievement – all the more so as plotlines come together in a finale that avoids grandeur, ending before miracle but capturing the true joy of hope.