Friday, February 7, 2014

book review: The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson

The basics: Set in 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, The Secret of Magic is the story of the death of Joe Howard Wilson, a young black man who was returning home to Mississippi after serving in the war. M.L. Calhoun, the notoriously reclusive author of The Secret of Magic, who is from the same town as Joe Howard, writes to the NAACP. Young, African-American NAACP lawyer Regina Robichaud, who loved Calhoun's book as a child, convinces Thurgood Marshall to let her go investigate Joe Howard's death.

My thoughts: I'm a huge fan of both novels based on real events and novels about racial and gender equality, so I was very excited to read The Secret of Magic. The novel begins with the last moments of Joe Howard's life. It was difficult to read, but I appreciated how it set the stage and gave him a voice and personality. When the action shifted to Regina in New York City, I hoped for a heroine like Alice in Scottsboro. But too soon Regina began to drive me a bit crazy in passages like this one:
"And Regina knew that that something would be about the shirt. She'd felt a knowledge scintillating around them all afternoon, since before that, even a feeling that Peach knew secrets, things that might make a difference, could bring them to the tip of her tongue."
Regina had too many premonitions and feelings and not nearly enough thoughts. It quickly became hard for me to root for her, and the novel is mostly devoid of other people to root for.

Johnson captures the complicated racial relationships in small town Mississippi well, but unlike Regina, these realities weren't surprising to me, so I grew increasingly impatient as a reader waiting for a revelation in which I could share. Despite its title, The Secret of Magic, this novel isn't about secrets in terms of a mystery. The death of Joe Howard is solved relatively early on, and the emphasis of the novel is on the racial culture of this town, Calhoun's novel (long banned there), and the lingering impacts of Joe Howard's death.

Favorite passage: "What you just witnessed," he said, "why, that's nothing but the secret of magic. Ol' Man Magic always does that. Makes us forget what we started out after. Makes us look where he wants us to look."

The verdict: I found The Secret of Magic lacking in both secrets and magic. The book within a book execution never fully clicked for me, which ultimately hampered my enjoyment of the story itself. While I had high hopes for Regina as a character, I liked her less as the novel wore on. Despite a promising set-up, one based on a real murder, this novel left me wanting more story, more character development, and more magic.

Rating: 3 out of 5
Length: 416 pages
Publication date: January 21, 2014
Source: publisher

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy The Secret of Magic from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Deborah Johnson's website and like her on Facebook.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

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