Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wrinkled look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick rereads 'A Gift Of Magic, Lois Duncan's 1971 story of 11-year-old Nancy Barrett, whose grandmother bequeaths her a totally ESPecial legacy.
Once upon a time in a house by the sea, lay an old woman, a special old woman who had the gift of magic.
If every author has their red-headed stepchild of a book (John Updike: The Witches of Eastwick: WTF?), every author also has the book that, whether it's a reader favorite or not, seems the purest expression of their very authorial being.
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For me, A Gift of Magic has always been that most scalp-prickling of a work—even more striking because the book eschews the convention Duncan is best known for among teen readers: namely, being fucking terrifying. (Do I still think of Lia's half-smile in Stranger With My Face while she's looking at herself in the mirror, brushing her purely evil hair with her twin sister LAURA'S BRUSH right after she's stolen her body, preparing to step out into the evening and go steal her BOYFRIEND, with measurable trembling? Do you even have to ask?) But there's no evil twin, no menacing stranger in A Gift of Magic — only a girl fighting with a power she does not yet understand or control.
When the book begins, our precogriffic heroine Nancy Barrett, older sister, Kirby, and younger brother Brendon have just been taken by their mother, Elizabeth, back to her childhood home in Florida. This follows Elizabeth's amicable separation from their father, a war photographer who dragged his entire family all over the world on an endless international heat-seeking jaunt that left them global travelers but curiously sheltered. So sheltered, actually, that the entire family takes Nancy's gift for knowing who's on the phone or that someone is coming to the door completely for granted, and the reader is introduced to Nancy's psychic powers on the first page in a suitable blink-and-you'd-miss-it way:
Nancy pulled herself awake and sat up in bed. "Mother's crying," she said.
Like all (sigh) middle children, Nancy is the emotional LIGHTNING rod for the family, and while Brendon and Kirby handle the separation with relative equanimity, Nancy violently reacts with typical Duncian flourish:
It was a stupid question. Of course, there was something wrong. There had been something wrong for days, for weeks, for months even. Now that the words had actually been spoken, Nancy could feel, with a sick kind of acceptance, the great wave of wrongness rising higher and higher above them, ready to come toppling over to swamp them all. With a violent effort she braced herself against it and made her mind go closed.
Okay, obviously Nancy is not intense at all. But by the time we've gathered the basic situation through Duncan's singular use of dialog-as-backstory ("But Dad?" Brendon said. "What about him? How can he work here? His job is to travel all over the place writing articles and taking pictures."), we've moved on to Nancy handily locating her father in Paris to check in on his emotional situation:
She closed her eyes tightly and reached out—out—across the miles, the hundreds and thousands of miles—to the place where their father was....it was a business lunch and he was getting briefed on the next assignment. There was a notebook by his plate and a pencil, but the page of the book was empty, for he had not been taking notes. His mind was away from the conversation...
No Twitter required! But now that we're in on the Barrett family un-secret, we move on to learning about the changes that will be wrought by removing Mr. red-and-white awning from the family situation. Now Kirby, a passionate dancer, is finally in a place where she can study it seriously. Brendon, who's been rambling solo with two sisters, can finally make a friend, and get into normal-boy activities, like building a boat out of an old door and orange crates and chewing gum (more on that later). And Elizabeth — astonishingly, to her children — reveals all sorts of new items for the children to digest, like that she can actually drive, and hold a job, and that Tom Duncan, their new school principal, is her old high school sweetheart and actually totally still in love with her.
Still, the change is most severe on Nancy, who not only must deal with poking around in all of her family's heads and feeling what's going on with them, but also that her ESP — which she does not even know is called ESP, EVEN THOUGH SHE HAS ESP — does not fly as easily in the world of the public high school. As this is a pre-Blubber era narrative, when teacher abuse still trumped peer abuse, Nancy's harsh debut into the world of the unbelieving takes place when she mistakenly starts putting the answers to a geography quiz down before the teacher has even asked the questions:
"No, Nancy, you did not imagine these questions," Miss Green said. "They are exactly the questions that I asked the previous classes. I would be very interested in learning how you knew what they would be."
There was a long silence. All around them, heads were raised and turned in their direction. Thirty pens were held, suspended, over thirty sheets of paper as thirty students waited to hear Nancy's explanation.
"I—I don't know," Nancy said slowly. "I just sort of—knew. I do that sometimes."
How very convenient. (That's totally what the teacher says too.) However, this is the part where it becomes even more extraordinarily convenient to have a principal who has been in love with your mother for 20 years:
"Wait," he said. "Now, let's wait a minute, Miss Green. I would like to hear a bit more about this ability of Nancy's. There is such a thing as extrasensory perception, you know, although we don't run into it to often."
"Extrasensory perception?" Miss Green's mouth fell open. She stared at the counselor as though she thought he had gone crazy. "Oh, come now, Mr. Duncan, surely you can't be serious!"
"Indeed I am," Mr. Duncan said firmly. "ESP does exist. I am quite positive of it. I have known these girls' family for years, and I have often wondered if their grandmother didn't possess the gift..."
Wait...do you mean the grandmother WHO LEFT NANCY THE GIFT...OF MAGIC? (I cannot tell you how much I love part in any Duncan novel where the wise old sage, instead of being like, "That sounds batshit," instead nods oldly/wisely/sagely and is like, "Yes, there are many studies from first-rate universities showing that there are [witches/ghosts/people who can astrally project themselves into other bodies]," etc.)
And with this revelation, Nancy has a name for what has always been—and starts to realize that she, like Kirby, may also have something that distinguishes her as an individual:
"Well, what is it exactly?" Kirby asked. "Is there more than one kind?"
"There sure is." Nancy referred to the book. "There's one kind called telepathy. That means being aware of what the other person is thinking. Then there's clairvoyance; that means knowing when something's happened. There are two other kinds two—precognition means knowing about the future, and being able to tell when something is going to happen. Retrocognition is knowing about the past."
"....It's your gift, isn't it? This ESP thing? Like my gift is dancing? ...."
Have I mentioned my second-favorite part of the Duncan oeuvre is when the heroine goes to the library and retrieves a book about whatever supernatural event is occurring, then handily recites its particulars for another character? But it's no mistake that, one page later, Nancy goes to the mirror and notices she's not quite as flat anymore. ("She might never look like Kirby, but she was finally, at long last, beginning to look like something other than a boy"). Because her learning about her ESP is also about her growing up, and taking responsibility for what she's barely been conscious of before.
Because A Gift of Magic isn't so much about a girl with ESP as it is about a family that, plopped like spores in a new environment, have to learn how to grow without destroying themselves. Kirby, given the freedom to study dance all her passionate heart desires, has to learn to not become completely anorexic and starve herself to look like a dancer, then fall down and break her leg and almost lose the gift because of nerve damage, but then triumphantly be okay. Elizabeth has to learn that it's all right to let go of the past, and marry Tom Duncan and be her own person, even if her daughter Nancy isn't thrilled about it. Brendon, whose gift is music, has to learn that even if he's going to squander that gift, it's still not a good idea to make a boat out of a door and old crates and set sail into the Gulf, and that if he does, he better shout loudly at his psychic sister's mind so she and Tom Duncan can save him before he drowns on the spit. And it's Nancy, most of all, who has to learn that her powers aren't evil, and they're not all-encompassing — they're just another part of her, a gift given out of love. Also that she should butt out of her mother's business.
Do they still write books about ESP and various other girls charged with special powers all the time? Because I've always wondered if those bloomed in particular during the 70s and 80s because it was a time before a fractured family became a given, and that, if it's the case, for the daughters growing up in a new hierarchy, they struck a particularly hopeful note. Because Nancy's family has undergone a turbulent dissolution, true, but it doesn't crush her — in fact, it gives her the ability to learn more about herself and what she can achieve than she would have had her mother stuck out an unhappy marriage. Duncan is having fun with faux-spookily showing off Nancy's special powers, true. But at the end of the day, A Gift of Magic is redemptive because it is simply about power.
•Ladies: I am so sorry — one week spacing and one week off and I completely forgot to announce the winner for the previous challenge, viz: Name the book in which one best friend moves to NY and they buy matching dresses in purple and orange on a visit and the new New Yorker chides her country bumpkin pal for saying "Avenue of the Americas" instead of Sixth Avenue.
The answer is, of course, "The Trouble With Thirteen," by Betty Miles, and the winner is Sarah R., the subject line of whose email read, "I think about it every time I cross 6th." ME TOO. Sarah, write me a email@example.com to claim your prize — you can suggest any book to Fine Lines and I will do it within the next month (ish).
This week's challenge is actually kind of impossible, and if anyone gets it, they deserve some sort of actual, tangible award — like a "Fine Lines" commemorative bookmark or something. As it is, I only have the gift of the column itself. So. What is the book that has a cover of a girl with her head on the table, looking sideways at — I kid you not — a marble green egg of the chochke variety? The girl, I believe, has bangs and long brown hair, and it's an actual photograph, not an illustration. The book is about a very messy divorce in NY where the stepmother comes to live with the family.
You can enter in the the comments or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org, where you can also write with book suggestions and any other semi-related demands. Also, does anyone have the right cover for this thing? I actually grew up with the one with the girl's face in front of pink clouds looking all intense and psychic, and I will not feel whole without it. Thanks in advance to sympathetic scanners.
A Gift Of Magic
Lizzie Skurnick [The Old Hag]
Earlier: Are You There Crazy Psychic Muse? It's Me, Lois Duncan
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