The Secret of MagicThe Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


In 1946, on his way home from serving in Europe in World War II, Joe Howard Wilson refuses to give up his seat on a bus to a German POW.  He is removed from the bus and lynched.  Several months later, an envelope with clippings about the case arrives in the office of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  It ends up on the desk of Regina Robichard, a young lawyer eager to prove herself.

Regina is fascinated by the case and by the fact that the envelope was sent by M.P. Calhoun.  As a child Regina was obsessed with a book written by M.P. Calhoun called The Secret of Magic that involved two white children and a black child playing together in a magical forest outside a witch’s cottage.  There was a mystery in the book about what happened to the witch’s brother but it was never explained.  Regina has always wondered about that.

She gets permission to go investigate.  She finds out that M.P. Calhoun is a wealthy white woman who employs Joe Howard Wilson’s father and who is mostly comfortable with the racism of her town.  As Regina investigates Joe Howard’s murder she starts to meet the real people that The Secret of Magic is based on and realize that there is still an unsolved mystery at the heart of that story.

This book would appeal to several types of readers – those who are interested in the racial conflicts of the early 20th century South and those who have always wanted to corner their favorite author and make them explain what happened.  (A little The Fault in Our Stars anyone?)

There are no easy answers here.  This is a town where everyone knows who did it because the murderer has been bragging about it.  He knows that no one gets punished for a lynching.  The mystery here is unraveling the complex histories and relationships between the people in the town to see who is protecting who and why.