The Secret of Magic: Deborah Johnson

Posted: August 12, 2015 in Book Awards, Reginald Hill, Southern States, USA

Magic DeborahAuthor Deborah Johnson in The Secret of Magic tells a story set just after the Second World War in 1946. 

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 hlpvery 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. 

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    So glad you enjoyed this so well, Norman. And you’re right; we still have a long way to go…

  2. Kathy D. says:

    Great to hear this about this book. I am adding it to my TBR list and will send notes to some friends to recommend it.
    And, yes, what is going on in the States these days is very discouraging in many ways, the continuing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow racism.
    Fortunately, there is a strong movement of Black activists and white supporters who are
    protesting everywhere.

  3. Bill Selnes says:

    Norman: I happened to finish reading The Secret of Magic a week ago. I thought it was an excellent book that challenged readers to think about life in post-war Mississippi. As a lawyer I am almost bound to find Regina the most memorable character. I know I have never been as great an idealist as Regina.

  4. Norman Price says:

    Margot, Kathy and Bill thank you for your comments.
    In 2003 I was at Shiloh in Tennessee and overheard a talk by a Civil War historian [I can’t remember who he was but he was a Southerner from his accent] as he conducted a tour.
    I tagged on for a few minutes, and he said “we shouldn’t fly the Confederate flag because it upsets our neighbours”. I was convinced after a month driving across the Border South including Northern Mississippi and Georgia that race relations were really improving from the 1960s.
    But you have to live in a country to see the fault lines.

    I have been distracted recently by the birth of a new granddaughter so my reading and blogging has taken a back seat to baby admiration. 😉

  5. Kathy D. says:

    Congratulations of your new granddaughter! What a boon to your life … someone to whom to introduce books at a young age.

    I told a friend who lives in Texas and works with the anti-death penalty movement there about this book. I sent her your review. She purchased it immediately and thought it excellent. Now she is sending it to me.

    Well, there is good and bad here in the States as far as civil rights goes. So many things are awful: the criminal justice system, racist words and actions, as in the killing of nine beautiful peole in the Charleston church and more.

    What’s hopeful is the movement against it.

  6. Kathy D. says:

    It is a new lease on life. Better get some baby books for her and start reading soon. It’ll be good for her and you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s