fads in YA literature, 1970s: psychic powers?

I read about Stranger With My Face in Shelf Discovery, and took a chance on it, as I liked the one other book of Duncan’s I’ve read, A Gift of Magic. Unfortunately, I was probably too old for Stranger with My Face when it came out; I was fifteen or so. I’m definitely too old for it now.

In Stranger With My Face, Our Angst Ridden Teen Protagonist, Laurie, is recalling events from a year previously, more or less: she’s grown up on a small island off the New England coast1, and befriends Helen, a convenient incomer from New Mexico2, thus cheesing off her island friends, who being (forgive me) an insular group, don’t like mainlanders3. She further torques off her island acquaintances by “attending” a party, which, being flattened by a vicious 24 hour bug, she was most definitely NOT able to attend…and her mother can attest to that fact. Further spectral visitations, and a bit of investigation and confrontation with her parents lead Our Protagonist to learn that she is not only adopted, but half-Navajo Indian and has a twin sister of whom she knows nothing. As it happens, the twin sister, raised by their Indian Princess Mother, has followed the Indian Way and learned how to do astral projection. Evil Twin (Lia) has located Innocent Protagonist! (sinister organ music and deafening clap of thunder!) Lia then proceeds to entangle Laurie into one of those friendships that makes you want to slap the person thus entangled and drag zir willy-nilly to a safe house ASAP, and Laurie goes along with it, despite having only just found out that Lia exists period. Laurie learns to do astral projection almost as well as Lia and goes swooping off to the Southwest, where she learns the Horrid Dire Truth About Lia–she’s an egotistical self-centered psychotic maniac determined to snatch a Perfect Home Life for herself–and rushes back to her own body…but Lia beats her to it by a hair, and slips into Laurie’s body. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that Laurie does get her own body back in the end. The framing story is that Laurie, about to go off to college, is remembering her own senior year in high school; we know at the beginning of the book that she’s in full possession of her body after the primary story has ended. Kinda gives the internal story’s ending away, I think. Rather like the framing story in Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber: the story begins with Clare, in the 20th century, visiting Inverness with an adult child. Clearly she made it back to the present.

The plot of A Gift of Magic is much more straightforward and comparatively mundane, allowing for the inclusion of middle child Nancy discovering at 12 that she has multiple psychic abilities despite the family never suspecting that such things ran in the family. Did none of the family wonder how Nancy’s grandmother knew her daughter would have a third child, a son, two years before his birth? much less that he’d have a gift for music? The family simply accepts Nancy for what she is–able to guess who’s on the telephone as it rings, read her siblings’ minds and so on–and get on with their lives. I suppose that what I like about it is that if the supernatural element is removed, there remains a decent story: the mother of these three children has just divorced their jet setting war correspondent father for basic incompatibility reasons, and returned home to her (now deceased) mother’s home in Florida, left her in her mother’s will. The kids are thrown into what is, for them, an alien world but one which is increasingly patently obviously their mother’s natural environment; they’ve grown up moving through Europe, living in a string of hotels, homeschooled by their mother and must now settle into one place, attend public school and learn to accept that not only will their mother not return to their father, both parents have moved on to people whom they prefer. Looked at in this light, it’s a bit reminiscent of Cleary or Blume’s work.

Did I like Stranger With My Face? yes, but not for the reasons that Duncan expected her readers to so enjoy it. I don’t think Duncan wants to find out I laughed uproariously, any more than she wants to know my husband rolled his eyes and mumbled something about cramming teen angst tropes into books. Could I, with a straight face, recommend it to someone in the appropriate age group? Yes. I’ve had fifteen years of practice doing just that.

1not sure where they live, but I imagine it as Maine? lotsa islands off the Maine coast.
2watch this convenient incomer…
3the island kids take a ferry over to the mainland to attend school


2 thoughts on “fads in YA literature, 1970s: psychic powers?

  1. I have to admit, I’d be uncomfortable with the Evil Twin Indian Sister and the Indian Princess Mother, along with the Exotic Savage Religious And Psychic Talents. It would probably lead to one of Those Talks, the ones that need to happen and I always appreciate openings for, but which I hate actually having.

    “A Gift of Magic” sounds familiar. The brother plays “Three Blind Mice” and turns it into an atonal “Three Blind Rats”? And the older sister is a dancer? If that’s the one I think it is, it was fun, but definitely a youth book.

  2. Stranger With My Face did strike me as very dated, rather like Maggie Stiefvater and Stephenie Meyers are going to be in a few years; at one point one of the parents says “Girls don’t do that.” (run off into the park to meet someone other than their date). Not “My child wouldn’t do that.” and not “she knows it’s dangerous to go into the park at night.” but “Girls wouldn’t do something so flighty.” And then there’s the Indian Princess trope…so a recommendation with mental reservations.

    Yes, you’re thinking of A Gift of Magic, and it’s definitely a book for tweens or younger, depending on reading level; the text is pretty clean, so I wouldn’t hesitate giving it to someone in grade school.

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