Memories recovered

  • Book: Will Do Magic for Small Change
  • Location: Benin (Danhomè), Paris, Pittsburgh
  • Author: Andrea Hairston

Review Author: Vasha



This book alternates between the story of Cinnamon, a teenager in 1980s Philadelphia, and the story contained in a mysterious book that reveals itself to Cinnamon (and later her friends) a chapter at a time. This narrative device felt artificial to me at some points, when someone in the frame story had to say “let’s drop what we’re doing and read another chapter now”. Nonetheless, the story told in the flashbacks is a very compelling one, set in the transition between the Kingdom of Dahomey in West Africa and French colonial rule, centering on one of Dahomey’s famous woman warriors. Kehinde is a Yoruba woman forced into the army and torn between loyalty to her own people and to her army comrades; she struggles to feel free and to remake her life, ultimately joining an entertainment troupe bound for the US even though she’s aware they intend to exploit her. Her story is told by a Wanderer between dimensions, who becomes bound to Kehinde by love. Freedom and love are difficult matters for Kehinde, and also difficult for Cinnamon in different ways.

The overarching theme of the book, putting together a fragmented, nearly lost story, is obviously relevant to African-American history. I very much enjoyed the complexity with which Hairston considered history. It is a fascinating picture of the tangled situation of the peoples on the coast of the Bight of Benin, under the shadow of the slave trade; there are different ethnicities, classes, and points of view represented.

Cinnamon’s story was a bit less gripping, but I did enjoy the portrait of her family, nearly shattered by lack of acceptance of love, and in danger of willful erasure of memory, which Cinnamon helps to put back together. Cinnamon also gets carried away by storms of words, prophetic and inspired, which are written in intoxicating language. Hairston, a playwright, is very good with different speech rhythms.

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