Review of To Come and Go Like Magic by Katie P. Fawcett

by Tina L. Hanlon

To Come and Go Like Magic cover

Fawcett, Katie P. To Come and Go Like Magic. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Warning: Spoilers in this review

Chili Sue Mahoney got her name from a family story about the wife of a Civil War Union soldier who called out the name Chileda while Chili's great-great-great grandmother cared for him in her home. Chili narrates a series of vignettes about her life in Mercy Hill, Kentucky until she turns thirteen and prepares for high school in the 1970s. She poetically describes the natural beauty of her "true home," her birthplace, as well as her yearnings to see other places. Butterflies that "come and go like magic" symbolize this desire for her after her teacher tells her about Monarchs traveling thousands of miles.

Chili collects new words in a notebook, "words we don't use around here," as well as reading lots of books (p. 21). Her seventh-grade teacher Mrs. Sturdivant, from Chicago, expresses unfortunate attitudes about Kentucky language but she leaves to have a baby at the beginning of the novel. Miss Matlock, age 71, is the substitute teacher "who can teach anything in a pinch" (p. 7). She has returned home after many years of traveling. She shares books in her home, where she has a bilingual parrot named Ivan the Terrible. Some people think Miss Matlock is crazy for a variety of reasons.

Chili's home becomes crowded with extended family: Uncle Rosoe in his coffin when he's brought to "his true home" for burial (p. 30), a pregnant sister whose husband has run off, an aging uncle whose younger wife leaves him, and a teenage cousin whose stepmother leaves him after his father dies. Lenny, the cousin, is the son of a dancer and full of scientific knowledge and love of dancing, although Chili's father disapproves. Uncle Lu is skilled at finding ginseng and Chili enjoys quiet reading time when she goes fishing with him, but his dementia and disapproval of any books besides the Bible lead to heartbreak for Chili after she inherits some books.

Chili's two best friends from childhood drift away when they lose interest in their jump-rope team and Chili doesn't share their interest in cheerleading. Her friendship with Willie Bright brings her closer to the realities of poor families like his, the "welfares" that working families look down upon. Chili gradually learns bits and pieces of local history about how coal mining had scarred her town, leaving some families like Willie's with no support when ethical conflicts arose and when the mine closed. They learn that Miss Matlock is the daughter of the former mine owner, but she ran away with a professor she "loved more than the sunrise" (p. 227). She left the ruthless ways of her family but also left people who depended on her for help, and some questions about her motivations and the past can never be answered. Although Chili's parents disapprove, the elderly teacher invites Chili and Willie to her home for many days of friendship and learning about places of the world, encouraging them to take hard classes and prepare for college.

Aunt Rose shares her domestic skills with Chili's family every day. She's a gifted seamstress but faces a dilemma when a VISTA worker tries to buy her old quilt full of family memories. The VISTA workers are criticized for misunderstanding and misrepresenting the positive aspects of mountain life, for making people dependent on handouts, and for their hippie ways. But they also offer valuable help, such as getting medicine for Willie's mother's epilepsy when she didn't know pills were available.

In spite of many disagreements and frustrations through the novel, Chili's family shows in the end that they recognize what means most to her through their joint present on her birthday. Chili's coming-of-age narrative expresses her lively and complex personality while revealing many details in her world of school, preteen relationships, American popular culture, small-town xenophobia, varied attitudes about religion and anti-Darwinism, destructive threats of strip mining, gardening and hunting ginseng, folk medicine, traditional music, and friendship with people of different ages and social class.

Discussion questions are included in the paperback edition.

Publisher's summary: "In the 1970s, twelve-year-old Chili Sue Mahoney longs to escape her tiny Kentucky home town and see the world, but she also learns to recognize beauty in the people and places around her."

The author's Acknowledgements page thanks "a few special teachers who brought the outside world to the mountains and encouraged us to dream" and "the caring people of Appalachia who help keep tradition alive and my roots intact" (p. 263).

"A magical read...I knew I was in the hands of a storyteller with heart, an eye for that exquisitely perfect detail, and a deft hand with painting her characters. I ADORED my time (much too short!) with Chili." Kirby Larson, author of the Newbery Honor book Hattie Big Sky (from back cover)

Fawcett's blog contains additional links, reviews, background, suggestions for teachers, and entries on other Appalachian books.

More Quotations

"'I wish I could be a butterfly,' I say. 'I'd like to come and go like magic" (frontispiece and p. 251).

"Someday I'll leave this place" (p. 1).

"I like school enough, but it's nothing special. I get Bs and don't crack a book. Except to read stories, that is. My favorite spot in the whole school is the back row of stacks in the library.... I like stories about people who are not real and places that are hard to imagine. Anything can happen in a book" (p. 5).

"She said we had to do grammar double time. 'You butcher the English language down here,' she said, emphasizing down here as if it was a bad word, instead of just saying Kentucky. Mrs. Sturdivant's from Chicago, where people talk proper without doing language double time" (p. 6).

"'Don't hang around with welfares, Pop says. 'You'll learn bad habits....You'll learn to expect something for nothing'" (p. 19).

"I don't like math. I hate numbers. Numbers are not like words. Words have something to say; they go places, do things. Miss Matlock says words can change the world. You won't see any numbers do that" (p. 20).

"I picture myself in a far-off country living amongst strangers. I'm from Mercy Hill, Kentucky, I say, knowing that no matter where I go, that will never change" (p. 30).

"It's the time of year when people living in the hollows come to town and stretch their legs in the sun. They're heathens, Pop says. Those little kids are growing up in places that even God forgot" (p. 44).

"New buds are popping open on the bushes and birds are singing high up in the trees like nothing has happened. No matter what bad thing comes along, the world keeps on doing what it has always done" (p. 55).

"'You can go home when you can't go no place else.'...You can always go home. Your true home stays put. It's all those other places in the outside world that you can't always go to, maybe never go to, except in dreams. These mountains keep a firm hold" (p. 91).

"The world is full of good and bad feelings that go on at the same time" (p. 103).

"Miss Matlock's world globe doesn't have a single speck on it to show that Mercy Hill exists. Still, you can feel the Appalachians. They're like a row of pimples down the slick face of America. But you can't see or feel the rivers that twist through the green valleys, or the way the willow trees bend over and dip their branches in the water, or the crawdads that hide in mud castles along the banks" (pp. 110-11).

"'Normal teachers aren't friends with welfares,' Ginny whispers across the aisle" (p. 113).

"'Happiness comes and goes like Wednesdays,' says Mayme Murphy. She's Ginny's big sister, and today she's giving Myra a Toni home permanent so Myra doesn't have to go to the beauty parlor and spend a fortune to get her hair fixed" (p. 143).

"'For goodness' sake, it's summer,' Pop says. 'Put those books away and go climb a real tree. You're not even in school" (p. 197).

"Patches of ginseng hide all over these mountains and most people walk right by and never notice a sprout. The Cherokee believe ginseng makes itself invisible to those unworthy of it, Uncle Lu says. But he always spots it. My great-grandma on Pop's side was a Cherokee, so worthiness runs in the blood" (p. 209).

"'I'd never run off from home,' says Joe Ed. 'Mercy Hill, Kentucky is God's country!'" (pp. 211-12).

I think about how everything works and doesn't work. The welfares and the regular people and the VISTAs. You can split the Mercy Hill people up like slices of pie. Every piece is the same but different. And forget about equal. Equal is something people just like to talk about. Still, that woman pulled up in her blue jeep at the right time. If she hadn't, Willie's momma might never have known about pills to stop the fits" (p. 223).

"Maybe when Myra leaves and takes all of her stuff, I can line my walls with books. I'll make it like a real library, a library in my own room, all smelling of books and filled with mysteries" (p. 233).

Pop...says he's seen this happen too many times. A woman gets it in her head to leave the hills, and she comes back a floozie" (p. 237).

"Times change, but you still love what you always loved—books and people and songs and pets" (p. 256).

"I can leave Mercy Hill, but Mercy Hill won't ever leave me. Momma was right: these mountains will always be my true home" (last page, 261).

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