Deborah Johnson,
The Secret of Magic
(Berkeley, 2014)

In The Secret of Magic, Mississippi resident Deborah Johnson uses a story of murder and its ramifications to explore racial relations in that state during the post-World War II years, showing exactly how complex and complicated they were.

The plot is simple. In 1946, Regina Robichard, a young African-American lawyer working for Thurgood Marshall at his Negro Defense Fund, received a letter asking Marshall to come to the small town of Revere, Mississippi, to investigate the murder of a young black Army lieutenant who, while traveling home from the war, was snatched from a bus by a group of white men and killed. Marshall assigns Robichard to the case, giving her two weeks to investigate.

When she arrives, she discovers that the identity of the murderer is an open secret; he has bragged about the killing around town. She also discovers that no one intends to do anything about it. Robichard, having lived all her life in New York City, has no idea what life is like in the segregated South and, as she naively goes about the job of assembling evidence against the killer, she learns how things operate in Revere and how the races collide, mesh and twist together in a complicated knot that can only be found in the American South and is almost impossible to unravel.

But while the plot moves the novel forward, it is the characters that anchor it: Willie Willie, the dead man's father, is the master of the forest, the man who knows, who is privy to all of the secrets and becomes Regina Robichard's teacher and guide through Revere. Mary Pickett Calhoun, who as M.P. Calhoun years ago wrote Regina Robichard's favorite book, The Secret of Magic, and then disappeared into reclusiveness, is the person who wrote Marshall about the murder and is one of the town's leading ladies. Peach, who is both a mystical character in Calhoun's book and in the town. Tom Raspberry, the black lawyer who navigates his way through the white world, determined that his son will be the first black man to pass Mississippi's bar exam. All of these people have their stories, their secrets, and it is the slow unspooling of these stories that give the novel its power.

And powerful it is. Deborah Johnson has an eye for the telling detail, the ability to bring a scene to life with a few strokes, and a knowledge of just how complicated things are and the way even a win brings a corresponding loss. In The Secret of Magic, she has written a novel of the American South that will, over the course if time, reverberate like the works of Faulkner, Welty, O'Connor and Harper Lee.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

28 February 2015

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