Title: The Secret of Magic
Author: Deborah Johnson
Release Date: January 21, 2014
Publisher: Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Regina Robichard is a young black idealistic lawyer working in the New York NAACP offices of Thurgood Marshall after World War II. She is intrigued by a letter from one M.P. Calhoun, the author of the famed children’s book The Secret of Magic, about a murder of a young black veteran returning home after war named Joe Howard Wilson. Though Marshall discourages her, Regina decides to travel to Mississippi to examine the case up close. She finds racism and prejudice at the heart of the deep South, but also truths she never expected to uncover.
The Secret of Magic is an intriguing novel with all the atmosphere of the deep South. Johnson isn’t afraid to tackle deeply held racial prejudices as she unravels this disturbing mystery. Readers will also appreciate the added touch of the book within a book format with M.P. Calhoun’s fictional literary classic.
There’s many things that The Secret of Magic is, but one thing it’s not? Straightforward. This complex novel weaves in multiple themes and storylines to creates a gorgeous, layered book. Readers won’t know what to expect as they delve deeper into this novel, but one thing becomes clear quickly: Despite the initial premise, this isn’t a whodunit mystery. Though it takes Regina a little while to uncover who murdered Joe Howard Wilson, finding the answer doesn’t take much digging. No, rather than the who’s and what’s, this is a novel about the why’s, which are much more difficult and disturbing.
Johnson captures the postwar Southern atmosphere perfectly in The Secret of Magic. Readers will feel the sweat on their brow as Regina braves the sweltering summers of Revere, Mississippi. But they’ll also feel the chill as they see firsthand the racism that Regina encounters. Prejudice is a way of life for these Mississippians. They see blacks as inferior and aren’t afraid to make their feelings known. Even Calhoun is mercurial, with unclear motives and long-held beliefs about the way the world works. There are no caricatures in this town; every character, both major and minor, is complex and layered.
It’s hard to understand how the book-within-a-book format works from the brief summary above, but Regina quickly realizes that her favorite childhood novel may be based on actual events. After she arrives in Mississippi, she tries to puzzle out the true story behind the The Secret of Magic. Readers will love this aspect of the book, as it’s really an homage to the idea that there’s truth behind even the most fantastical of stories. It also emphasizes how important the past is in Revere, and that people don’t forgive long-held hurts.
There are so many aspects to The Secret of Magic, and each is beautifully executed. Johnson weaves together a mesmerizing story that is full of hatred and despair, but also featuring the crusader that is Regina. She won’t stop until the uncovers the truth, and though what she finds is horrible and disturbing, there are also brighter aspects of the book that keep it from getting too heavy or dark. This is absolutely a book that you should consider, as it’s both intriguing and Johnson has important things to say.