M.P. Calhoun sends a letter to Thurgood Marshall, head of the NCAACP Legal Defense Fund [who was to become the first African American Supreme Court Justice] asking him to come down to Mississippi to investigate the death of Joe Howard Wilson, a decorated black Lieutenant and veteran of the Italian Campaign, who was returning to his home town of Revere. M.P.Calhoun is the reclusive author of The Secret of Magic, which was a book that was banned after publication because it told a tale of childhood friendship across the races, a magical forest and an unsolved murder.
The letter, containing various newspaper cuttings, is opened by one of Mr Marshall’s assistants Regina Robichard, who because of her family history is very keen to go down to Mississippi. Reggie loved the book The Secret of Magic as a child and is intrigued to discover that M.P.Calhoun is a woman, Miss Mary Pickett Calhoun. Thurgood Marshall gives her three weeks to delve into the case, and she travels south by segregated train and bus to a very different world from New York.
I am not going to say any more about the plot because it is a story that brought tears to my eyes. The narrative is beautifully written, so very evocative of the South at that time, and for a long time after. The story brings to life a cast of characters who leap off the page. Especially memorable is Willie Willie, Joe Howard’s father, with his stories of teaching all the children both black and white the secrets of the forest. In Revere there is almost a symbiotic relationship between black and white, for example between Miss Mary Pickett and Willie Willie, but also a distinct social divide between the old wealthy white families, and the descendants of poor white sharecroppers.
The Secret of Magic is a book that will hopefully educate and perhaps even bring an improvement in race relations, because although the USA now has an African American President, Attorney General and Head of Homeland Security, recent events have shown there is still an enormous distance to travel.
Not that she hated white men, not really. Still…..after what they’s done to her father….she couldn’t help herself.
But that had been in New York, and New York, she had to admit, was nothing like Revere- a place where black people and white people were all jumbled together, had built up a land, and still lived, in a sense right on top of each other, constantly traipsing in and out of one another’s lives. So close they couldn’t just be naturally separated,…………..
No, you needed Jim Crow laws for that, and Confederate flags waving over a courthouse, and separate drinking fountains, and separate schools, and poll taxes and literacy tests for voting, and substandard schools-and in the end a good man like Joe Howard Wilson dead.
Deborah Johnson was a worthy winner of the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction, and readers shouldn’t be put off by a narrative containing words commonly used in 1946 Mississippi to describe African Americans. Otherwise they will miss a book that is pure magic.