All Abel wants is a little bit of magic in his life. Enough money so his mom doesn’t cry at night. Healing for his broken body. And maybe a few answers about his past. When Abel discovers letters to him from the father he believed dead, he wonders if magic has come to the hills of Mattingly, Virginia, after all. But not everything is as it seems. With a lot of questions and a little bit of hope, Abel decides to run away to find the truth. But danger follows him from the moment he jumps his first boxcar, forcing Abel to rely on his simpleminded friend Willie—a man wanted for murder who knows more about truth than most—and a beautiful young woman they met on the train. From Appalachia to the Tennessee wilds and through the Carolina mountains, the name of a single small town beckons: Fairhope. That is where Abel believes his magic lays. But will it be the sort that will bring a broken boy healing? And is it the magic that will one day lead him home?
Our protagonist, young Abel (I believe he's possibly in his teens at the story's opening?) was born with a medical condition that causes his bones to remain very brittle and his spine crooked. This also leads him to have disfigured limbs that make movement difficult. Abel hates that his health problems cause his mother so much stress and financial strain. Both he and his mother try to live good, honest lives, Lisa (the mother) putting in long hours a local diner in their little town of Mattingly, Virginia, often working double shifts to just to barely make ends meet. Abel suffers through bullying at school but tries to make the best of it until one day he just reaches the end of his fuse and fights back in a rather unique way. Though it's well known who the main school bully is, Abel still seems to get the short end of the stick when the bulk of the disciplinary action falls on him.
"What if things could be better?" he asks.
"They can't, Abel."
"But what if they could? Would you be happy?"
"I'm happy now."
"Maybe you ain't. Maybe you been sad for so long, you think that's what being happy is."
Lisa cannot answer this.
"Don't worry, Momma."
He gets up from the table and leans in close for what Lisa believes will be a kiss. Instead, he snatches a nickel from behind her ear and places it on the table.
"What's this for?"
"For what I owe. I know it's not all of it, but I'll take care of the rest too."
He walks inside, letting the screen door shut behind him. Lisa can only sit and drink her beer. She fingers the nickel and wonders how long Abel had been carrying that around, wonders what just happened, and whether it was Abel who just got punished, or her.
One night, while he remains home alone while Lisa works through another late shift, Abel comes across a box of letters addressed to him that he's never seen before. He doesn't recognize the North Carolina address but when he opens one letter he finds the writer signs off as "Dad". Lisa had always told Abel that his father passed away when Abel was just a baby, but these letters seem rather recent.
Make sure you laugh and love and stop to watch the sun fall. Keep your eyes on the things that matter and don't, and learn to know the difference.
~an excerpt from one of the letters
Abel decides on a plan to jump the first train boxcar out of town, taking along his best friend, Willie Farmer. Willie, known to most of Mattingly as "Dumb Willie" (for being mentally challenged) is in his early 20s but has the mental development of a small child... and the physical strength of a superhero. Due to an unplanned scuffle with a local meanie, Willie is now possibly wanted for murder, so it's important Abel keep his friend by his side. Meanwhile, Abel is also hoping that the trip will lead him to meeting his father face to face and give him the answers to a better, more comfortable life for him and his mom.
Once on the train, Abel & Willie meet an enigmatic young girl who doesn't readily give up her name, so Abel, inspired by his love of The Wizard of Oz, names her Dorothy. Dorothy has something mysterious & special about her, and her utterances here and there -- such as "It was a mistake, bringing them here." -- clue the reader in on the idea that her presence isn't entirely by chance. *If you've read Billy Coffey's work before, you likely remember that he likes to play with light themes of supernatural and even touches of magical realism, so you can likely make a good guess of where the story heads from this point.
Abel stares down at his cast, which has been left dented but whole. He stares and will not look away, because even now he can feel the girl's eyes upon him, those pretty blue ones set inside that pretty face. He feels that look as one that speaks not of friendship, but of options weighed and regrets counted.
The perspective of the story shifts ever so slightly between our three key players -- Abel, Willie and "Dorothy". Coffey does an especially nice job of subtly bringing in Willie's voice. Without changing the rhythm of the writing in a jarring fashion, Coffey changes his writing just a touch -- making it more simple in style or writing words in a more phonetic way -- to quietly let readers know they've shifted from the thoughts of Abel to Willie (and back again, later). Coffey's way of laying all this out brought to mind John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.
Willie is one of the most endearing characters here, drawing readers in with his boundless love and faith in good people, even when Abel lets you in on his friend's story. Willie's mental slowness? His parents claim it was caused by him falling off a wagon as a child, but Abel suspects the source is more along the lines of Willie's father beating and abusing him for years, Willie's parents treating him more like a burden / source of free labor than a beloved son. Abel's suspicions seem confirmed one day when Abel goes to Willie's house to find him chained up with just a small jug of water at his side, parents nowhere to be found. It breaks your heart and at the same time makes you think of Willie as the kind of soul too good for this world.
"Then you got ones like Dumb Willie. They're the special ones, Abel, and you know why? Because they ain't meant for this life at all. They're so tuned to the next world that it leaks into this one here, turning it all to a wonder they can't bear up against. You tell me Dumb Willie's pa is the one broke Dumb Willie's mind. I don't know about that. I think maybe it's more Dumb Willie's always been so full of heaven that he ain't got much use for earth. That's how it is for those few blessed enough that their souls point to other lands, but cursed such that they got to live in this one. Folk call them dumb. Call them crazy. But they ain't neither. All they are's closer to heaven than anybody else." ~Dorothy
This turned out to be my favorite of Coffey's books to date. The novel warmly touches upon the theme of family and friendship, the lengths we go to to creating (or at least contributing to) a fulfilling life for the ones we love. Some Small Magic also ends up being a nice illustration of just how far a little hope, a dash of that "faith of a mustard seed", can take a person in life. Key characters are living out hollow, painful, sad existences, punishing themselves for things largely beyond their control. Depressing as that sounds, Coffey turns it around, showing that no matter how far gone one's situation seems, there's always time to learn how to let go and live for joy again.
For the first time in a long while and perhaps even forever, laughter filled this small patch of forgotten wood in the midst of a bustling mountain town. The noise is full and whole and worthy of wonder. It is magic, this laughter, and one not so small as to slip through Abel's knowing. The feel of it lodges into the cracked places of his insides where not even his brittle bones dwell, telling him things will be all right now. Wherever that dark road leads, Dorothy and Dumb Willie will travel with him. And Abel's daddy will be at its end, and healing, and the world will be made right. Yes, that is how Abel knows it will be.. because most every road is a dark one. Especially the ones that hold a light at their end.
For those interested in using this as a possible book club pick, a page of discussion questions are included at the back of the book.
FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.