, , , , , , , , , ,

Review: The Secret of Magic, by Deborah Johnson

Putnam, 2014. 402 pp. $27

Like millions of other American servicemen in October 1945, Joe Howard Wilson is going home, having fought the good fight. But Joe Howard is African-American, which means he rides the back of the bus through Alabama to Mississippi. The lieutenant’s bars on his uniform collar and his Distinguished Service Cross should command respect, but they don’t–not from white onlookers, anyway–who throw him deadly stares. Sure enough, when Lt. Wilson refuses to leave the bus to make room for German prisoners-of-war, his objection costs him his life. A grand jury, meeting for fifteen minutes, calls his death accidental.

What a stirring start, a window on a vile, painful chapter in our nation’s history. I’ve read about violence against African-American veterans after both world wars, so I was eager to see what Deborah Johnson made of Joe Howard Wilson’s fictional case. Unfortunately, the answer is, Not much.

Regina Mary Robichard, a newly minted graduate of Columbia University Law School, works for Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s office in New York. Against his better judgment, he lets Regina go to Revere, Mississippi, to find evidence to pursue the case, following the request of one M. P. Calhoun, a member of the Revere white aristocracy. Regina singles out this case from the hundreds gathering in her office because her father was lynched by an Omaha mob; and the photo Calhoun sends of the late Joe Howard and his father, which radiates love and warmth, reminds Regina painfully of the parent she never knew.

An African-American enters a Mississippi movie theater from the back entrance, 1939. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

An African-American enters a Mississippi movie theater from the back entrance, 1939. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

This is very powerful stuff, and Johnson takes pains to make its context particular, re-creating the fictional postwar Revere with care. Nothing is as simple as it seems in this town of old families and older prejudices, of conflicting alliances, patronage, and barely repressed anger that needs little coaxing to erupt into violence. The confrontations between Regina and the white citizenry, my favorite scenes, often crackle with fiery subtext that reveals vast gradations of insult and blindness. The Confederate flag flying at the courthouse is only the most concrete symbol, mocking the men like Joe Howard who fought for ideals of justice that somehow don’t apply to them.

However, The Secret of Magic fails to develop these themes to serve or sustain the story. For me, the problem begins with Regina, who really doesn’t belong in the book. I don’t believe for one minute that she’s a lawyer–it takes her three hundred pages to act like one–or from New York, which feels like an address rather than her home or the place that has shaped and educated her.

There’s also no way that Thurgood Marshall would have allowed the clueless, wide-eyed Regina within a thousand miles of Mississippi, a setup, if ever there was one. The subplot involving New York office politics feels like a clumsy attempt to raise the tension, and Marshall has little or no purpose here. The thirty pages during which Regina and he tell each other what they both know stops the narrative cold, and the important bits reappear more effectively through action anyway, the moment she arrives in Revere.

The storytelling falls short in other ways too. Several scenes take place in total darkness, yet, somehow, Regina manages to see remarkably well. Characters promise to reveal their secrets in due time, only to say nothing momentous when that time comes. Repeatedly, the author tells the reader what the characters have just shown.

As for the legal case, there isn’t one. Regina manages to interview a murder witness whom the grand jury failed to question, but that doesn’t matter. Everybody in town knows who killed Joe Howard–the reader can guess too, pretty soon–and no indictment will be filed. So why does the novel require an outsider as a catalyst? Without one, the story would have worked more smoothly and plausibly, with greater tension.

The answer is that Regina’s favorite book growing up was called The Secret of Magic by M. P. Calhoun. The M. P. stands for Mary Pickett (as if Calhoun weren’t enough of a Confederate moniker), whose book was banned in the South for portraying an interracial friendship. Fair enough, so far as Mary Pickett’s character is concerned, though it’s unnecessary; the story fleshes her out in other ways. More to the point, Regina’s fascination with a real, live author feels trivial and star-struck, and the frequent quotations from Mary Pickett’s book only slow down the narrative.

I think that to drag in this literary conceit and honor Thurgood Marshall, Johnson had to twist her story in ways she shouldn’t have. That’s too bad, because she had a fine starting point.

Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.