Pros: Realistic and entertaining family dynamics play out with a supernatural theme
Cons: It's a bit outdated but not really in a negative way
While growing up, I always smiled when I saw the latest book by Young Adult author Lois Duncan in my Christmas stocking or in a present waiting to be unwrapped. Combining suspense with the supernatural, Duncan's books never disappointed. And years later when I reread them, they still don't.
A Gift of Magic, one of Duncan's earliest novel addressed the issue of Extra Sensory Perception or ESP, something that Duncan would only believe in years later after the tragic murder of one of her daughters. I remember reading in an interview later that before that, Duncan didn't really believe that many of the supernatural elements in her books from ESP to the power of witchcraft even existed. She could have fooled me because you would never know this while reading one of her novels, where she treated topics that are often ridiculed in a serious, well-researched and always entertaining way.
Divorce and step parents are a common theme in Duncan's Young Adult novels and so that's the case with this book. She introduces us to a nuclear family that's broken into pieces that are trying to rebuild themselves into new ones. In this case, it's a single mother of three children named Elizabeth who returns to her now deceased mother's house to regroup and start over after divorcing a fly-by-night foreign correspondent, an action that had been foreseen by mother who had the gift of second sight.
Elizabeth's children are also gifted in different ways. Oldest daughter Kirby has the gift of dance combined with a single-minded drive to use it that exceeds that usually found in a young teen-aged girl. Son, Brendon has the gift of music, but he's the opposite. He shuns his gift for more entertaining past times mostly involving acts of mischief. In the middle, is Nancy who inherited her grandmother's ESP, who gave her gift "to the daughter who looks the most like me". It's Nancy's struggle to understand her unique gift and ultimately appreciate it which makes up the core of this novel.
Having been a child of divorce and remarriage, Duncan's portrayal the feelings that arise from divorce and how a single mother moves her family toward remarriage, in this case with an old high school boyfriend is very authentic. Often there's fantasizing about the family reuniting, idealizing about the missing parent and resentment towards any perceived interlopers to that dream of reuniting a broken family. Nancy holds on to what she's lost with everything that she's got and her slow realization that even as her gift can allow her to see from the past to the future (including in one memorable scene with her grandmother), real life can only move in one direction and that's forward. Duncan's portrayed this journey in several books including her suspenseful tale Ransom, though it works more effectively in A Gift of Magic.
Divorces and the merging of different families have changed enormously since the early 1970s when the book was written, the feelings still resonate strongly. And even with its supernatural topic, this book is mostly about how the dynamics of a family changes as it changes. How the characters face the challenges that come along with being gifted in different ways.
The characters who portray educators take a beating in the novel. The villainous sociology teacher, Mrs. Green (who brings to mind Margaret Hamilton's portrayal of the wicked witch in Wizard of Oz) accuses Nancy of cheating because her student knew the questions on a test before they were asked, a byproduct of her ESP. Later, she falls ill and is portrayed more sympathetically with Nancy believing that she caused her misfortune. The one sympathetic character in education is guidance counselor Tom Duncan who incidentally is Elizabeth's old boyfriend and the only character outside of the family who accepts Nancy's gift without hesitation, an action which proves pivotal during the novel's climax.
Duncan's books are always enjoyable to sit and read for long or short stretches wherever you may be. And if you've never read her books before, A Gift of Magic is a good introduction.