Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s A Fistful of Sky is a disturbing book, but it has great baked goods. It’s a book about a dysfunctional magical family. Gypsum, the first person narrator, knows that the magic isn’t the only thing that makes the LaZelle family unusual. She’s been the victim for most of her life—her brothers and sisters all went through transitions in adolescence and got magical powers. Gypsum has been defenseless against them, and especially defenseless against her appalling mother. Now she does go through transition, late, and she gets gifted with an unkind power—the power of curses. She has to use it, or it’ll kill her, and she has to learn how to use it without becoming a monster. Hoffman treats everything with the same seriousness, the magic, the family dynamics, body image issues, and the possibility of healing.
Gypsum is a great character, shaped by her unique experiences and very much herself. The book is first person and we’re plunged into her voice from the first word—and also told how much her sense of self is caught up with her family.
In my family, we used the word we all the time.
Gypsum is a middle child and she has been without magic and so at the mercy of the others. It’s been very hard for her to have an identity, as her family haven’t been willing to let her control anything, not even herself.
Gypsum loves to cook and bake, and the descriptions of cooking are lovely and there’s a magical baking scene that’s my favourite magical baking scene ever. She also loves reading and eating—making her easy to identify with, and also making her fat. The most distressing part of the book is when she tells the story of what happened when her mother sent everyone else away for two weeks and forced Gypsum to exercise to the point of exhaustion, because her mother couldn’t bear having a fat daughter. Hoffman deals with the whole body image thing with naturalism and sensitivity—well, as naturalistically as you can when you can curse your brother to be fat and grow yourself to the size of a goddess.
It’s very unusual to find a fat sympathetic character in a genre novel. Fat villains represent self-indulgent greed. Fat sidekicks are played for laughs. Fat heroines are few and far between. When you do come across a fat character it’s often a Problem. Gypsum’s eating may be comfort eating, but her problem is not her weight, it’s her family.
While we’re on the subject of unusual, small scale magic like this is in itself unusual. The LaZelle family have knacks, there are kinds of magic they specialize in. The oldest sister Opal has “ultimate fashion sense” and can make people look like anything. She works in Hollywood in make up and special effects. Their magical abilities are really magical, but they’re limited and bounded. Gypsum has to curse things or she feels bad, and she tries to find things that need cursing and things other people won’t regard as curses—like cursing her younger sister Beryl with ultimate fashion sense, and cursing rock to be chalk, and cursing another rock into a person, Altria, a kind of elemental, and one of the most interesting characters in the book.. It’s family scale magic, you can see why they’re not running the world.
I like the way their father copes without having magic, and I like Gypsum’s best friend and her mother, who is a new age “witch” and who therefore has an interesting attitude towards the magic. I like the way she’s beginning to explore stepping away from the family and finding friends. I like how real the family feels and how central their dysfunctionality is to their power—I like how the whole book can be seen as about body image and power, or from another angle as the way a friend described it “that book about brownies.” (Some people think Deerskin is a book about dogs.)
I find the resolution too easy, but then again the plot is “Gypsum figures out how to live with her power and her family” so what do you expect? It’s the detail along the way and the wonderful characters that keep me coming back.
I’ve compared Hoffman to Zenna Henderson, but Hoffman’s work has a harder edge and was written in a time when it’s possible to write more directly about abuse. If Hoffman’s work has an overall connecting theme it’s young people keeping secret what makes them special. My very favourite Hoffman is either short stories or part of series, and as A Fistful of Sky stands entirely alone it seems like a good place to start if you haven’t read her work before. There’s also the wonderful Ghost Hedgehog story right here, which I hear is being expanded into a novel.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.