The Secret of Magic
As our nation marks the bicentennial of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, it is still difficult for Americans to come to grips with our continuing deep division across racial lines. Even the election of our first African-American President has not brought the races together. Indeed, many rightly believe that Barack Obama’s tenure has only served to polarize race relations to a greater degree than when he took the oath of office.
Deborah Johnson’s THE SECRET OF MAGIC, a novel set in the Jim Crow South in the days after World War II, reminds readers of the struggle for racial equality and the frustrations that many Americans felt in seeking to understand the mindset of the old confederacy battling against the modern movement for racial equality.
"THE SECRET OF MAGIC is an absorbing and often moving story. At first blush, many of the characters seem stereotypical, but there remains something haunting and provocative about Johnson’s novel."
In the days immediately following the conclusion of World War II, Joe Howard Wilson, a decorated hero of the European theater, is returning home to his family in Revere, Mississippi. As the segregated bus in which he is traveling home passes through Alabama, Howard has the audacity to refuse to surrender his seat to a Nazi POW. As the bus nears the Mississippi border, a group of hooded men remove Wilson from the vehicle. Two weeks later, the war hero’s body is found floating in a river. The coroner rules the death an accident.
The injustice suffered by the fictional Joe Howard Wilson is based in part on an actual attack on a black veteran in the postwar South. The novel also has as an important character Thurgood Marshall, the real-life leader of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and a giant of the civil rights movement and of American law. Marshall’s New York office receives a letter with a collection of news clippings reporting Wilson’s death and is signed “M. P. Calhoun.” Regina Mary Robichard, a newly minted attorney in the Legal Defense office, recognizes Calhoun as the author of a mystical book about southern life. Robichard is also sensitive to Wilson’s fate because her own father had been lynched by an angry mob in Omaha, Nebraska, before she was born.
With Marshall’s grudging acquiescence, Robichard travels to Mississippi to investigate Howard’s death. She meets the guiding force behind the investigation, Mary Pickett Calhoun, a middle-aged woman who is the author of her favorite childhood book, also called The Secret of Magic. That novel read by Robichard as a child is a tale of courage about three children, one black and two white, who learn of a mysterious death in Mississippi. The first Secret of Magic serves as a book within this book that often foreshadows events that will confront Robichard as she peels away the curtain of facts surrounding Wilson’s death.
Calhoun’s family, one of the oldest and wealthiest in Revere, has employed Howard’s father, Willie Willie, for decades. When Robichard first meets Calhoun and Willie Willie, she believes that the woman is seeking justice for the bereaved father. But life in this small rural community is far more complicated than Robichard would believe. The more she learns, the more distressed she becomes. Her Northern beliefs and prejudices often conflict with the attitudes and culture of the postwar South. The more she learns about Mississippi, Wilson, Willie Willie and Calhoun, the more she realizes how little she actually understands about her own life experiences.
THE SECRET OF MAGIC is an absorbing and often moving story. At first blush, many of the characters seem stereotypical, but there remains something haunting and provocative about Johnson’s novel. It serves as a reminder of a sad chapter in American life, a chapter that must never be forgotten.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on January 31, 2014