REVIEW: ‘The Secret of Magic’ a story of murder, mystery and history

Feb. 01, 2014 @ 10:37 AM

This is the book. This is the novel you’ll tell your friends to read this year. This is the book that will push all those other set in the South during Jim Crow books to the dusty end of the bookshelf. “The Secret of Magic” by Deborah Johnson is a work of masterful storytelling, telling truth with fiction in a novel that comes alive with every word on the page. With as many curves as there are branches on magnolia trees, this novel will take you into the forest and leave a mark on you.

It is set in small-town Mississippi right after the end of World War II, where the world has changed but many white Mississippians have not. “The Secret of Magic” is a telling of a tragically familiar story – an African-American man speaks up for himself and is then murdered, and the killers are free to roam the streets with a smile. So who, then, to carry out justice? Who, then, to air the dirty laundry aging Southern belles want kept hidden under Confederate roses and green and blue painted porches?
Regina Robichard is the African-American New York lawyer sent down by the NAACP to investigate, at the request of a wealthy white woman. Regina asks – both internally and out loud – all the questions that must have been asked – and must be asked. Not just about a homicide, but about everything else in a culture that let rich Southern white men do as they pleased.
Author Johnson gives vivid descriptions that envelope readers into the world of “The Secret of Magic” with every sense. A scene about Regina’s bus trip South – the men carrying luggage, the change to the rickety seating of segregation, ushers you right up to the stifling racism of the 1946 American South. The author tells, yes, but also shows you how places harbored evil and beauty together. What Regina does is call people out who not only don’t want to be called out, they don’t expect to be called out. And they certainly don’t like to be called out by her.
“The Secret of Magic” is not the next “The Help,” unless you’re talking in broad, Southern novel worth reading criteria. The white female character Mary Pickett is helpful, or so it seems, but not too helpful. She is the one who calls Regina to Mississippi to look into the death of the WWII veteran son of Willie Willie, a man who worked for her. Her reasons are revealed as the story unfolds. What seems a mystery is not – what seems clear becomes murky. Regina, who does not trust Mary Pickett, still admires the woman’s work, a children’s book that gained national attention. Regina finds that the book’s setting is more and more familiar the longer she stays in town. The more readers delve into “The Secret of Magic,” the more the novel’s truth of history and mystery takes hold.

: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 10
WHERE: Quail Ridge Books
3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh
WHEN: 7 p.m. Feb. 11
WHERE: Flyleaf Books
752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill