Beau­ti­ful South ex­plored in post­war tale

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Deb­o­rah Bow­ers

WITH the pop­u­lar­ity of re­cent race-re­lated films such as The Help, The But­ler and 12 Years a Slave, The Se­cret of Magic is a timely story. It’s the sec­ond novel by Colum­bus, Miss. writer Deb­o­rah John­son. Her pre­vi­ous novel, The Air Be­tween Us, re­ceived the Mis­sis­sippi Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tion Award for fic­tion. The story be­gins in Oc­to­ber 1945, and fea­tures a mix of both his­tor­i­cal and fic­tional char­ac­ters. The pro­tag­o­nist, Regina Mary Ro­bichard, is a young, black, fe­male lawyer who trav­els from New York to Re­vere, Miss. to probe the sus­pi­cious death of Joe Howard Wil­son — a black sol­dier killed shortly af­ter be­ing hon­ourably dis­charged from the U.S. Army. Regina’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion is an eye­open­ing jour­ney, with the so­cial norms of the time pro­vid­ing per­spec­tive and in­con­ve­nient truths at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. On the sur­face, small-town Mis­sis­sippi has whites and blacks liv­ing sep­a­rate lives in sep­a­rate parts of town. But un­der­neath, the truth is much more com­pli­cated. Upon ar­riv­ing in Re­vere, Regina meets racon­teur ex­traor­di­naire Wil­lie Wil­lie, the fa­ther of the mur­dered sol­dier. Mary Pick­ett Cal­houn, au­thor of a book-with­inthe-book also called The Se­cret of Magic, is a piv­otal char­ac­ter who walks a fine racial line be­tween her life­long friend­ship with Wil­lie Wil­lie and her white fam­ily’s stand­ing in the com­mu­nity. The cen­tral char­ac­ters bring com­plex­ity and con­text to life. John­son weaves the lives of Re­vere res­i­dents to­gether through the use of re­veal­ing con­ver­sa­tions and vivid de­scrip­tions, while avoid­ing can­dy­coat­ing se­ri­ous is­sues with folksy charm. Rather, she gets to the heart of racism and all of the ugly judg­ments that come along with it. It’s com­pelling to ex­pe­ri­ence the dis­crim­i­na­tion of the time through Regina’s eyes when she views towns­peo­ple: “The woman kept her eyes stu­diously down; kept them on the buggy, on her three­year-old son, on the pave­ment. She deftly ma­noeu­vred her baby car­riage, her­self and her boy into the street, leav­ing the white men to own the side­walk.” Al­though The Se­cret of Magic caters to Amer­i­can au­di­ences, with men­tions of Con­fed­er­ate flags, Amer­i­can law and south­ern-state pol­i­tics, John­son is care­ful to re­mind us of the uni­ver­sal truths that oc­cur in ev­ery small town. Per­haps Wil­lie Wil­lie pro­vides the most apt ex­pla­na­tion: “Every­body’s in every­body else’s busi­ness. White ones and black ones, we all played to­gether. Dreamed our dreams to­gether. Up un­til we were 10, that is. Af­ter that, we went our sep­a­rate ways. White ones go­ing on to school. Black ones mostly out to the fields. But that didn’t stop us from know­ing each other.” As much as racism is a chal­leng­ing topic to digest, John­son in­ter­sperses a gen­uine love of the South that shines through. So many sce­nar­ios in­volve the scents of Mis­sis­sippi: roses, sweet olive flow­ers, clema­tis and laven­der are sprin­kled through­out the jour­ney. Food is another joy that is shared with cre­ativ­ity, both di­rectly and in­di­rectly: “The build­ing it­self was new, mor­tar still stick­ing through the cheer­ful red brick like ice cream peek­ing out of an Eskimo Pie.” There is also a dis­tinct plea­sure in be­ing wit­ness to a young lawyer’s sense of jus­tice as she works on her first case. And the art of sto­ry­telling through the lens of Wil­lie Wil­lie is an ab­so­lute de­light that show­cases an im­por­tant tra­di­tion of days gone by. With so many colour­ful char­ac­ters that jump off the page, The Se­cret of Magic would make for a fas­ci­nat­ing turn on the big screen. Deb­o­rah Bow­ers is a Winnipeg writer and

mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor.

The Se­cret of Magic

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