The Secret of Magic

Apr 21, 2014

“The Secret of Magic”
Author: Deborah Johnson
Publisher: P.G. Putnam’s Sons
Pages: 394
Price: $26.95 (Cloth)

Deborah Johnson’s new novel has a bone-chilling opening scene. December, 1945: Lt. Joe Howard Wilson, returning to his home in fictional Revere, Mississippi, just east of Columbus, is travelling on the Bonnie Blue Line interstate bus. The bus makes a detour through Aliceville, Alabama, and there several white men get on and demand that Lt. Wilson, in uniform, having been decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in the Italian campaign where many of his friends had been killed around him and even in his arms, is asked to give up his seat to a white man. This white man is a German Prisoner of War from the Aliceville camp.

Lt. Wilson is outraged. He refuses, curses the Nazi, and is a little later taken off the bus and murdered, his body thrown into the Tombigbee River. A few months later a letter arrives in New York at the office of Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund asking that he investigate this killing. Marshall, who has not previously been a character in fiction to my knowledge, sends to Mississippi young Regina Mary Robichard.

Regina, bright, ambitious and driven—her father had been lynched in Kansas—has just finished Columbia law school. Not a Southerner, Regina makes the arduous trip to Revere to discover what happened. As she soon learns—and indeed ten people, black and white tell her—things are done differently down there. She does not understand anything!

“The Secret of Magic” is a kind of murder mystery, but only to Regina: nearly everyone in Revere knows who did it. Facts and even many truths are available, but justice is not.

As Regina follows her leads, Johnson introduces a cast of intriguing characters, black and white, who, we learn, all have complicated pasts, complicated relationships and in many cases are the living prototypes of the children in a hugely successful children’s book written many years ago by a fairly reclusive Southern one-book author, Regina’s host, Mary Pickett Calhoun, a grande dame of Revere. That book, “The Secret of Magic,” is a combination of Hansel and Gretel, Mockingbird, Huck Finn, and Uncle Remus. Three children, black and white, have adventures in the Magic Forest, and like Mississippi it is a complicated place, an Eden of beauty and discovery, but also holding danger and death. The royalties from this children’s book fed Calhoun’s extended family in the Depression, but the book, which shows black and white children playing happily together, is banned in Mississippi. Regina, however, has read it.

Regina doggedly interviews folks and searches for evidence, all the while enduring the most grotesque treatment imaginable. A young, black female lawyer from the NAACP may be the single most feared and loathed entity possible in the minds of the local sheriff, judge, DA, and other powerful men in this medieval fiefdom.

The story of Wilson’s death is woven with and echoes Calhoun’s novel, as Regina comes to realize. Most of the characters are still alive and in character. The wise old black man, for example, Willie Willie, is Lt. Wilson’s father. Regina finds clues to the present mystery in the 30-year-old novel. Once again the reader realizes that, in Dixie, the past , even the fictional past, isn’t dead.

“The Secret of Magic” casts a spell, ending not exactly with justice served, but rather with violence, revenge, waste, death, a little hope, and finally the catharsis of exhaustion.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”