Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beautiful South explored in postwar tale

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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 eye-opening 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-within-the-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 candy-coating 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 three-year-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.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 8:37 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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