Source: Penguin Random House
Paperback, 416 pgs
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The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson is a phenomenal look at the racial prejudices that continue to hold tight in Mississippi, Alabama, and elsewhere, even after then end of WWII when black soldiers fought bravely against the Nazis. Joe Howard Wilson is returning home as a decorated hero after losing not only men in his unit, but one of his good friends, L.C. He’s musing on his visit with his father, Willie Willie, who taught him so much and worked with their white employer, Judge Calhoun, to ensure he was educated enough to get out and make something of himself.
Joe Howard Wilson jerked and his hands went straight to his face, and then to his body, for his gun. Groping. Feeling. Saying his prayers. Checking to make sure that he was awake and what had happened in that forest in Italy, all the killing was over. Checking to make sure it wasn’t happening now.” (page 1)
Joe is a young man still coping with the loss of friends, only to find that the prejudices he dealt with growing up are still present and an additional pressure he has little patience for after serving for his country overseas. When Regina Robichard, a young attorney still waiting to hear if she passed the New York bar, is called down to investigate the death of a WWII veteran a year later, she finds that the south is not as black and white as she expects it to be. She’s sent south with a mission from Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP to investigate the matter. Regina, the daughter of a relatively famous black female activist, is idealistic and tentative in her approach to those she encounters, particularly M.P. Calhoun, who wrote her favorite book — The Secret of Magic.
“The air in the depot smelled just like everything Southern he remembered. Even inside, no matter where you were, there was always a hint of the earth and the things that died on it. You could not get away from the scent of things, from the richness of them, if you had lived, like he had lived, so near to the ground.” (page 8)
Through a neatly woven narrative, Johnson creates a tapestry of the south that depicts not only the racial prejudices present in the south that are held onto tightly even after WWII, but also the deep connections between the whites and blacks within the small community of Revere, Mississippi. Like all relationships, at first blush racial prejudice is hatred of the other, but looking deeper Johnson demonstrates that there is a love underneath the comments of “mine” and “our” used by whites in reference to blacks in the community. Revere is a town that is in transition whether it likes it or not, and in many ways, the change is too quick for some and not quick enough for others — especially those like Peach Mottley who see Regina as the catalyst they need.
The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson is gorgeously told, and it is riveting from the first page. Readers will develop an instant connection with not only Joe Howard Wilson and Regina Robichard, but with the other major and minor characters as they continue to navigate the social constructs that are the same and yet changing. The fairy tales that peek around the realities of the South provide hope of a new world, but they also are endangered by those who wish to halt change in its tracks.
I haven’t been this blown away by a book in a long while, and this one is a must read and a definite contender for the Best of 2015 list.
About the Author:
Deborah Johnson was born below the Mason-Dixon Line, in Missouri, but grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. After college, she lived in San Francisco and then for many years in Rome, Italy where she worked as a translator and editor of doctoral theses and at Vatican Radio. Deborah Johnson is the author of The Air Between Us, which received the Mississippi Library Association Award for fiction. She now lives in Columbus, Mississippi, and is working on her next novel. Check out her Website.