Lois Duncan’s A Gift of Magic is a revised 2012 edition of her 1971 novel of the same title. But instead of simply updating the book to reflect current computer, internet and cell phone usage (something she did for other reissues of her older novels), Duncan used this opportunity to make some fairly significant changes to the original text, changing not just the names of a few characters, but their ages.
The result is a switch from a book which, to be honest, I can barely remember in its original form (“Oh, yeah, the one with the psychic dancer, right?” Spoiler—WRONG.) to a stronger work.
The current edition focuses on fourteen year old fraternal twins Nancy and Kirby and their younger brother Brandon, switching points of view between all three characters in succession. All three received certain gifts from their grandmother, a woman with more than a touch of magic, who could see the future and a few other things she probably shouldn’t have. Brandon gets the gift of music; Kirby the gift of dance; and Nancy the gift of magic. As Duncan suggests, all three of the gifts can be useful, or dangerous, or ignored, in different ways.
Arguably the person most affected by the gifts is Kirby, who doesn’t just want to dance ballet: she’s obsessed with it. Unfortunately, she’s hampered by two issues: a lack of formal training (she has attended seminars, but that’s not quite enough) and, to her, a much greater problem: she doesn’t have the body of a ballet dancer, and thanks to puberty, she’s growing in places she doesn’t want to. The first problem is managed—to an extent—with private lessons from an outstanding tutor, Madame Vilar, who recognizes Kirby’s obsession, talent, and drive—whatever the weight issues. The second is something Kirby decides she has to try to manage herself.
Nancy has a different issue: she’s initially comfortable with her gift, something everyone in her family takes for granted because it’s “just Nancy.” This includes small things like knowing who is on the other end of the phone (the revised novel happily ignores things like Caller ID, not around in 1971, but also manages to get around this by allowing Nancy to know who is calling well before anyone would have a chance to check Caller ID). It also includes considerably larger things like being able to see her father, who is currently living in another country.
Brandon just seems happy.
This despite a fairly major upheaval in their lives: as the book opens, their mother announces that she and their father are divorcing, which is why they are now going to be living in her old hometown in Florida, rather than following their father round and round the globe. Kirby, totally focused on ballet, and Brandon, not particularly focused on anything, seem to accept this in stride, noting that none of them saw their father too frequently before the divorce in any case. Nancy does not. Indeed, she remains convinced that her parents not only can reconcile, they must reconcile—and does whatever she can to sabotage her mother’s slowly burgeoning new relationship with long time friend Mr. Duncan. Nancy believes that Mr. Duncan is the next closest thing to Satan. I think most readers will disagree, but her desire to reunite her parents is very definitely sympathetic, if not realistic.
Though Nancy soon has another issue; while not paying attention, she accidentally used her “gift”—making it look as if she cheated on a quiz given by one of those teachers that everyone hates anyway. Investigating this incident leads to the discovery that Nancy just might have ESP, something I must say the adults in the room—except for the Evil Teacher—seem surprisingly eager to suggest. (I mean, I would have stuck with the cheating theory, and I write science fiction and fantasy. I’m very surprised to find a high school teacher more open to the idea of ESP than I am. But moving on.) Nancy at first freaks out, and then decides to use her powers, not necessarily for good. When her sister Kirby has a terrible fall, breaking her leg and potentially killing a nerve, it sends both of them spiraling into separate but equally deep depressions.
Meanwhile, Brandon makes friends with someone who tried to beat him up, and, in a bit I didn’t remember from my first read, the two of them decide to go hunting for treasure. On a sandbank. In the Gulf of Mexico, using a boat they assembled from odd bits of junk to get there. Kids, grown-ups, tourists, aliens from outer space (not to be confused with tourists exactly, though that can be difficult), I cannot stress enough just what a terrible, terrible, idea this is. I know the Florida Gulf coast doesn’t always have the same waves that the Atlantic coast does, but that’s no excuse for not following basic boat safety. AUUGH. Also, yes, tides are important. Keep this in mind. The U.S. Coast Guard will thank you.
The decision to age the girls up to 14 has mixed results: on the one hand, Nancy once or twice seems a little young for her age—though, to be fair, she is dealing with the trauma of her parents’ divorce. And it seems a little unlikely that at their age the two sisters wouldn’t have been more aware of issues between their parents. On the other hand, making Kirby 14—at about the last possible age where she can begin serious dance training—does add a significantly greater weight to her storyline. Nancy and Brandon have time to learn and recover. Kirby does not.
The book has a certain element of mystery—what exactly is happening with their father; what, exactly, are Mr. Duncan’s intentions (well, to be perfectly honest, these intentions are not all that unclear), does the sandbank actually contain treasure (if it does, all the more reason to ensure you use an actual boat), are Nancy’s powers evil or good. But in deep contrast to many of Duncan’s other works containing supernatural elements, the focus in this book is not mystery or suspense, but rather acceptance. Kirby has to accept her body; Nancy to accept change, and Brandon—ok, Brandon just has to learn that no, we do not take handmade, poorly put together boats out into the Gulf of Mexico. That’s about it—though to be fair, Brandon starts the book in acceptance mode as it is, so learning to accept things, not exactly great character development for him. But he does have to learn a few other things along the way.
And this book has something slightly unusual for a Lois Duncan book: for once, a character is not responsible for something she feels incredibly guilty about. Which is not to say that Nancy can avoid all blame entirely—she’s definitely done more than one unethical thing, not to mention that her entire guilt trip could have been avoided if she had chosen either to communicate with her sister, or get over her deep mistrust of Mr. Duncan. It also has a fascinating portrait of someone with immense talent who just doesn’t care about it, and several strong family moments: Brandon and Nancy’s genuine fury when someone else gets a more prominent dance role than their sister; Nancy’s mixed feelings about her sister’s future; the competitive support between the two sisters. It’s not the strongest of Duncan’s novels, and I could have done without the last line, but thanks to the rewrite, it’s stronger than the novel I remember.
Mari Ness has only ventured out into the Gulf of Mexico in proper boats. She lives in central Florida.