“The Secret of Magic,” by Deborah Johnson

Deborah Johnson

Deborah Johnson

Review by Donna Meredith

The fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Summer is the perfect time for the release of Deborah Johnson’s novel, The Secret of Magic. Johnson’s story reminds us in a powerful way how severe the effects of racism were just a short time ago, yet the novel’s achievements go far beyond a simple exposé of inhumane behavior. The Secret of Magic captures the complexity of people living together, some more equal than others, in a small town.

The story opens as Lt. Joe Howard Wilson makes the last leg of his journey home to Mississippi from the fields of war in Italy. White police officers board Joe Howard’s bus and demand he give up his seat to the white German prisoners of war. When Joe Howard refuses, hooded men drag him from the bus and murder him. Real incidents of injustice visited on black soldiers as they returned home from WWII inspired this story.

The murder of Joe Howard grabs the attention of Regina Robichard, whose father was lynched. Fresh from law school, Regina is working for the young Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in New York City. She convinces her boss to let her go to Mississippi to uncover the truth about Joe Howard’s death. The world she encounters in the small southern town is entirely different from NYC, a world she must learn to navigate if she is to find justice for Joe Howard.

Complex characters populate the world of Revere, Mississippi. Topping the list is M. P. Calhoun, the author of the letter requesting help from Thurgood Marshall—and the author of Regina’s favorite childhood story, The Secret of Magic. The chance to meet the author is one of the reasons Regina can’t turn away from this case. She had always assumed M. P. was male and is surprised to meet Mary Pickett Calhoun, a white woman wearing heirloom pearls. But whose side is Mary Pickett really on? Regina can’t tell.

Mr. Willie Willie, Joe Howard’s father, is equally fascinating. The elderly black man has initiated generations of Revere’s children into the mysteries of the woods surrounding the town. The connection between Mary Calhoun and Willie Willie runs much deeper than employer and hired help, but the exact nature of the relationship is shrouded in mystery.

Then there are the lawyers, the sheriff, the judge, the wealthy established families of Revere—all of whom are hiding the secret of who killed Joe Howard.

Solving the mystery would be reason enough to keep turning the pages, but Johnson’s gifts as a writer extend far beyond a well-crafted plot.

Examine the superb details that capture time and place: “It was dark by the time Regina made her way again to Willie Willie’s cottage. Even so, there was enough daylight left for kittens to be still tumbling over one another on Mary Pickett’s lawn, for girls to still be playing one last game of hopscotch before dinner, for boys on bicycles, streaking like fallen stars across the streets of Revere, to call back to friends, like they had in The Secret of Magic.”

Look at the way Johnson nails the awkwardness between the races: “She had never very much liked talking about race with white people, even the white lawyers who worked in the Fund office. Everyone just seemed so self-conscious. She was, and they were too.”

The way the author seizes on a deeper understanding of the South’s obsession with storytelling: “Down here, in the South, we tell the same stories over and over again, always hoping things will turn out different and better, with just one more telling, with just one more word said a different way.” Yes—so many hope the South might win the Civil War with one more telling, or wish that if someone claimed just one more time the war was fought over states’ rights and not slavery, it could be transformed into truth.

The gorgeous imagery Johnson uses to make us feel as if we are meeting Peach, the “witch” of the woods, along with Regina: “So in the end, she reached out to Peach, to the warm honey-fruit smell of her, to her flowered apron hanging like a picture over a flower-on-flower silk dress, to her sachet-powdered bosom that looked like a tea cake dusted with sugar, and she kissed her warm, scarred cheek, while around them the forest sighed.”

Another lovely technique is Johnson’s interweaving of the present-day mystery of Joe Howard’s murder with the slow unraveling of the supposedly fictional children’s story written by M. P. Calhoun. And Regina is “lawyer enough to realize how hard it was to get to the truth, how people hid themselves under all sorts of fiction.”

There is no hiding from the truth in this novel, even when the truth is harsh, even brutal. This novel ranks with the best of Southern literary fiction, as perfect in its way as To Kill a Mockingbird.

Deborah Johnson is the author of The Air Between Us, which received the Mississippi Library Association Award for Fiction. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she now lives in Columbus, Mississippi, after many years living in San Francisco and Rome. While in Italy, she worked as a translator and an editor, as well as at Vatican Radio.

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