Andrea Hairston’s Will Do Magic for Small Change alternates between two narratives, both of which are full enough to be their own novels. One of these is set in 1980s Pittsburgh, where Cinnamon Jones has to cope with the recent suicide of her brother, Sekou. The second narrative, which is set in the 1890s and moves through parts of West Africa, France, and America, is contained within a mysterious book called The Chronicles that Cinnamon spends much of her narrative reading. Cinnamon is lonely and fits in nowhere—she’s smart and observant, which means she tends to ask questions and voice opinions that people don’t like, and “theatrically challenged” (which means that she’s too tall and too heavy to be cast in plays, even though she’s a powerhouse). Her mother, Opal, is dealing with a bevy of issues, and Cinnamon takes inspiration from the other adults in her life: her grandparents, Redwood and Aidan, “theater people” who’ve traveled the world and who do hoodoo; Redwood’s sister Iris, an Oberlin professor obsessed with textiles who writes Cinnamon letters (and who wrote Sekou, too); and Star Deer, dancer extraordinaire and substitute math teacher. The figure that’s missing is Cinnamon’s father, Raven Cooper, who’s in a coma after jumping in front of a bullet that was meant for a lesbian couple.
Raven’s legacy and uncertain future haunt the novel, but Sekou, who’s fully dead, literally haunts Cinnamon. He does this both via occasional commentary on what Cinnamon is doing and thinking (she can hear his voice, and he sometimes appears to her), and through the things he left behind. One of these things is a mysterious book called The Chronicles, which magically displays new chapters from time to time. The Chronicles, which we get to read along with Cinnamon, follows the journey of the Wanderer, an alien (so it seems) who “come[s] together in scummy water tumbling over smooth boulders, my eyes drawn from rainbows, feet on fire, crystals melting into skin” (7). The Wanderer does this in front of Kehinde, an ahosi (“king’s wife, warrior woman”) in Dahomey, West Africa, 1892, who is fleeing the king for loving another man. Eventually, The Wanderer and Kehinde will travel from Dahomey to France, and then the USA. In the process, we come to know more about Kehinde’s knowledge of magic, as well as the Wanderer’s strange abilities that gleefully flout categorization as either science fictional or fantastic. (They are probably both.)
Hairston renders a great number of different relationships honestly and with compassion, and these relationships occur not just at different stages of people’s lives, but at different points throughout history, and in different societies. Systems of magic and religion overlap, clash, and negotiate. In a book like this, particularly if I’m reading it for the first time, I usually find myself clinging on to one or two things that hit me hardest, for whatever reason. I’m not sure if it’s always a good way of reading. There is probably a difference between reading to try to find out where the book’s priorities lie and reading according to your own priorities. Though, in a book this full—and in a book that is largely made up of one character reading another book—maybe it’s an acceptable way to make my way through.
The first of these things is the way Hairston portrays Cinnamon’s relationships with her grandparents and Iris. My elders, both when I was a child and even still, were and are the closest things there were to having some kind of classic fantasy mentor figure. This, I think, is how Cinnamon feels about her elders, too. She feels palpable respect and awe for them, which, in part, comes from being at a distance. They’ll always be older than she is, and they’ll always remember things that happened long before she existed. They’ve seen things she can’t.
Hairston has a certain way of writing about magic, and about the way Cinnamon’s elders act, that’s more about feeling, or sensation, or atmosphere, than any sort of logic. Her language has rhythm, whether or not it’s part of a song, and it makes strange phrases carry weight. This creates a feeling of Cinnamon—and us along with her—trying to muddle our way through some sort of truth, of having to invent our own way through the world to get there, because we can tell that something important is going on, or that there’s something we want to understand, but we don’t have a way of getting there. When this happens, Cinnamon (with us, as readers) has to explain the world in the terms that make sense to her. The magic of Will Do Magic for Small Change feels this way, too, especially since so much of it is tied up in Cinnamon’s family. Redwood, Aidan, and Iris all have their own types of magic. None of them conceal it from Cinnamon, but they treat her like a student, as if they’re slowly initiating her into the world she’s already started to notice from the outside. Again, it’s the fantasy mentor, but it’s also the grandparent who plays along, who tries to follow the child just as the child tries to follow them. It makes me think of something like Kendall Walton’s “game of make-believe,” or Johan Huizinga’s “magic circle,” both of which are theories that require people to establish some sort of agreed-upon interpretation of a world that they know isn’t true, but can act as being true within certain parameters. But the most interesting, most exhilarating, part of this whole adventure is the fact that it’s serious, that it’s real—that this feeling of uncovering something strange and important about the world applies to magic just as much as it applies to being an adult.
Maybe that’s like what happens in the theater—why it matters so much that Redwood and Aidan are “theater people,” and that Cinnamon wants to be one, too. As a non-theater-person, I can’t really say, though the fact that Redwood and Aidan are her role models in the theater suggests that there may be important similarities there. (And there are similarities, too, to tabletop roleplaying games, another performative activity that can occasionally generate a feeling that is undeniably real.)
There’s an external validation that’s part of learning about magic together, which, in Cinnamon’s case, grows into a type of community. But Cinnamon’s elders are still that—they’re old, and they don’t live nearby, and there are things she’s scared to tell them. Cinnamon needs friends. The way the book deals with Cinnamon’s difficulty finding friendships, and with how she feels once she finally finds them, is the second thing I latched onto.
Two years after Sekou’s death, in the middle of a snowstorm, Cinnamon attends an audition for a really terrible musical, a fairy-tale takeoff where “the hobgoblins and warlocks were drug dealers and gangsters” (106). The audition is full of actors who are already friends with the people in charge of casting. It seems futile, but Cinnamon tries anyway, and she ends up creating “theater magic” with two other teenagers by singing a three-part song: Marie, who’s short, skinny, and beautiful, and Klaus, who’s one of the only males who regularly auditions and who was going to get cast anyway. It’s a sudden bond. They’ve all accidentally made something together that nobody who was there can deny was real.
But can it last past that one moment? Because Cinnamon has such difficulty making friends, when she finds two people, out of the blue, who seem to be true friend material, she almost explodes. She’s elated, but she’s also suspicious and scared. How could this be possible? She has to measure how far she can go with her new friends, and occasionally steps over the boundaries, which proves that the possibility of messing up exists, at least to an extent. Sometimes Cinnamon gets ahold of something, or it gets ahold of her, and she launches into a “story storm,” a torrent of words that she can’t control. She has a dead brother who talks to her sometimes—and who Klaus and Marie, as it turns out, can hear if they’re close by. Being friends with Cinnamon requires accepting these things. But Klaus and Marie follow along—they like Cinnamon. It isn’t just that she made theater magic with them. She’s real beyond what she can do onstage. Still, though, whether or not their bond will last is never fully answered, even by the end of the book.
There’s so much pain and fear in reading about how Cinnamon navigates this uncertainty. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book, or a story, that portrays the precariousness of wanting to keep a new friendship quite so vividly. It’s something I’ve often felt, and it’s a feeling that tends to convince you that nobody else has ever felt the same way, so that it was shocking to read about. Even apart from this, though, Cinnamon’s problem feels dire because we know what’s at stake. We’re privy to Cinnamon’s world and the things, and people, that matter to her. Trusting Klaus and Marie feels truly dangerous, even though both of them (particularly Klaus) are good people, and easy to warm to. What if the things she cares about get stomped on? What if she gets stomped on? Cinnamon is the custodian of The Chronicles, Sekou’s legacy, and her grandparents’ magic, but in trying to open out her life beyond that role, she is also able to add more to the things she is trying to protect. It’s also something that Cinnamon seems to desperately need—somebody from far away enough that forging a connection isn’t required. This deepens Cinnamon’s character, but it also just makes me want to nod, and wince, in understanding.
There is, of course, far more to Will Do Magic for Small Change than this. Some of it I’m still sorting out. There were parts of The Chronicles’s plot that felt scattered and disjointed, and I couldn’t tell if I wasn’t reading carefully enough, or if there were things that were missing on purpose. Why is it that Kehinde and the Wanderer decide to go to Chicago? Is it because of the World’s Fair? Because of something they’ve read? It’s unclear. But, just as in the Cinnamon sections of the book, the strength of the relationship between Kehinde and the Wanderer (as well as with some of the other characters they meet) is a core strong enough to support everything else.
Will Do Magic for Small Change requires both constant questioning and constant empathy. It can be overwhelming in what it asks from the reader. I’m glad I read it; I need to read it again.
 It’s also worth noting that Hairston is also a “theater person;” aside from writing, producing, and translating numerous plays, and directing the Chrysalis Theatre, she’s a Professor of Theatre and African-American Studies at Smith College.