Andrea Hairston’s 2016’s Will Do Magic for Small Change is a historical fantasy. It is set in the same world as Redwood and Wildfire. It won a spot on the 2016 Tiptree Honor List.
Pittsburgh teen Cinnamon Jones deeply mourns her deceased brother Sekou. She treasures a book he once owned, an old leather-bound chronicle. But the book is more than a keepsake: it is magic.
The book is a history, one that begins with the fall of the kingdom of Dahomey in the 1890s. The French invasion is a calamity for most Dahomeans — but not for Kehinde. She had been a slave warrior in service to the Fon of Dahomey. The chaos of invasion offers her a chance to escape servitude. She takes the chance, but cannot prevent pursuit. The Fon and his loyalists see Kehinde as a traitor and will kill her if they can.
Kehinde’s flight crosses paths with an other-dimensional wanderer, an alien who nevertheless forms a bond with the warrior. Pursued by Dahomean loyalists, they flee Africa for Europe and then America.
An intriguing story, yes? Cinnamon thinks so … and believes in the truth of the story that the chronicle unfolds.
Meanwhile, in real life, Cinnamon is dealing with problems less earth-shattering than the fall of a kingdom to foreign invaders, but no less important to her. She suffers from an over-protective mother and a theatrical director who listens avidly to her tales, then refuses to cast her in the resulting plays. There’s also a complicated first romance for which the culture of the 1980s has not prepared her.
Theatre people. It’s important to remember not all of them are like Hill: one part boundless ego to one part ruthless exploitation, resulting in a minimum of actual accomplishment. There are some genuinely nice, even useful people in show business. For example, most theatrical ushers are paragons of unblemished virtue, and the worthiness of box-office employees cannot be understated. [Editor’s note: Ahem.1]
It was a welcome change of pace to read a book featuring human-scale problems, the sort of problems many of us may encounter. No chosen one, no battle for the fate of the world. Cinnamon, for example, is dealing with a father left in a coma by a head injury, a dead brother, a mother struggling with lung cancer, and a perplexing teenage romance. That’s enough and to spare.
(There’s some nation-scale calamity [the invasion of Dahomey] but it’s not the point of the story in the story. The point is Kehinde’s attempt to escape slavery and how she handles the personal connections she reluctantly makes.)
If you’re looking for a novel featuring a world that is NOT a thinly disguised Southern California, a world where even humble individuals are worthy of attention, one in which they are not merely stalks of wheat on which their social betters may test their blades, this may be the novel for you. Cinnamon’s concerns are very, very personal, but they matter to her … and to us, her readers.
As engaging as Redwood and Wildfire, Will Do Magic For Small Change expands on the setting first seen in the 2011 novel. Hairston’s prose is skillful and her vision of the world more complex and inclusive than most authors. All of which would not matter if she could not write interesting characters, but as it happens, she can.
1: Of course, one cannot say enough positive things about the visionary Directors of Theatre Operations and Front of House Managers who hire said ushers and box-office staff.