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Review: The Secret of Magic by Deborah Johnson

Secret of Magic
Secret of Magic
Secret of Magic


Highlights: The relationship between Mary Pickett Calhoun and Mr. Willie Willie.
Synopsis: NAACP lawyer Regina Robichard travels to Revere, Mississippi, to uncover the truth about WWII veteran Joe Howard Wilson's death.



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The author shows how complicated relationships between whites and blacks were in the Jim Crow South.


Too much time is spent on uncovering the truth when the truth is already known. The interjection of snippets from Calhoun’s book becomes a distraction.

Posted March 17, 2014 by

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When World War II ended, American soldiers who returned home found that their country had changed. Women were now working outside the home, and many were not content to be housewives any longer. Yet, some things had not changed at all. In the South, racial segregation and inequality remained the same, and black soldiers who had just risked their lives to gain basic human rights for others found themselves denied many of those same rights in their own homeland. Unable to stand the unfairness any longer, many of those soldiers stood up for themselves, but in the Jim Crow South, challenges to authority were often met with violence. This volatile situation serves as the backdrop to Deborah Johnson’s novel The Secret of Magic. In this work, Johnson shows just how complex race relations were in the Deep South before the Civil Rights Movement.


NAACP lawyer Regina Robichard arrives in Revere, Mississippi, seeking justice for Joe Howard Wilson, a returning WWII soldier who was murdered after refusing to give up his bus seat to a group of German prisoners of war. Regina, having grown up in New York City, does not know what things will be like in rural Mississippi, although she imagines they will be similar to the environment of her favorite book, The Secret of Magic, authored by M.P. Calhoun. M.P. or Mary Pickett Calhoun is the one who requested the NAACP’s help in the case because Joe Howard’s father, Willie Willie, works for her. Regina is excited to meet the controversial author, but she quickly realizes that Mary Pickett Calhoun is not an enlightened woman.

Although Regina thinks she has come to solve a murder and bring the guilty to justice, she discovers that everyone in Revere already knows who killed Joe Howard. What she’s really there to do is to prevent another death, Willie Willie’s. After talking with witnesses who were never allowed to give testimony and being given evidence that can prove the truth, Regina hopes to get the case reopened. If she cannot, Willie Willie may take matters into his own hands. And while this street-tough New York City girl believes she can handle whatever is thrown at her, she begins to understand that she is not quite as safe as she thinks she is.


The Secret of Magic is a complex novel because it has multiple layers that one must slowly peel back in order to get at the truth. At first glance, readers may think the book is about Joe Howard Wilson’s death, but it is more about the dynamics of Mary Pickett Calhoun and Willie Willie’s relationship. Willie Willie practically raised Mary Pickett, and although race divides them, they have a genuine parent-child love for each other. That love is tested throughout the book because of Mary Pickett’s position as a wealthy and famous Southern white lady and because of the fine line that she would have to cross if she helped Willie Willie outright. Making the situation more strained is that the young man accused of killing Joe Howard is the son of the only man Mary Pickett ever truly loved.

The book does a wonderful job of showing the challenge of race relations in the South through the dialogue of its characters. For example, when Regina asks Mary Pickett why Willie Willie will not give up on getting justice for Joe Howard when everyone knows a white man will not be convicted of killing a black one in Mississippi, Mary Pickett explains,

Why? Honey, why is the history of this place. It’s the only question we ever ask, and it’s the one that never gets answered.

Later, in a touching scene between Regina and Willie Willie, he also tries to help her understand how things are between the races. He tells her,

Why, Miss Regina, that’s the whole tragedy of it. Lynching’s a terrible thing. That much is for certain. But the judge explained to me once what tragedy really is. The literal, old-timey meaning of the word. It’s something that might look good outside, but inside is evil. Can’t control it. Nothing you can do about it. And sure enough, Mississippi’s a tragedy. The state of it is. These people who won’t do a thing about Joe Howard, why, I’ve known them all my life. They’ve known me. They knew him.

However, the book is not without its complications. Johnson tries to weave together current events with M.P. Calhoun’s book’s events. The interjection of snippets from Calhoun’s book into the action becomes a distraction, and Johnson’s novel would flow better without them. Perhaps a short summary of Calhoun’s book as prologue would have been a better way to include it in the novel.

One other issue is the stereotyping of Tom Raspberry as an “Uncle Tom” figure. Raspberry has his own law business, but as he points out to Regina, no black man has a law degree in Mississippi in 1946 because they are not allowed to take the bar exam. When racial tensions arise, the white lawyers look to Raspberry to help make things right, which always results in things being right for the whites. Raspberry’s position is not an easy one, but he knows the score. As he tells Regina when she continues to press the issue of reconvening a grand jury to review Joe Howard’s case,

Missy, I have an idea you’re about to find out life around here is a lot more complicated than you ever imagined.

The Secret of Magic is a good story with a clear message. As Regina is told, “You will find that the past is still very much alive down here.” In that is the simple truth about the South: our past is both beautiful and ugly. It is full of tradition and contradiction. Yet, it is a place where, as M.P. Calhoun’s book suggests, magic can happen.

The Secret of Magic (Hardcover)

By (author): Deborah Johnson

In 1946, a young female attorney from New York City attempts the impossible: attaining justice for a black man in the Deep South.

Regina Robichard works for Thurgood Marshall, who receives an unusual letter asking the NAACP to investigate the murder of a returning black war hero. It is signed by M. P. Calhoun, the most reclusive author in the country.
As a child, Regina was captivated by Calhoun’s The Secret of Magic, a novel in which white and black children played together in a magical forest.

Once down in Mississippi, Regina finds that nothing in the South is as it seems. She must navigate the muddy waters of racism, relationships, and her own tragic past. The Secret of Magic brilliantly explores the power of stories and those who tell them.
List Price: $26.95 USD
New From: $3.24 USD In Stock
Used from: $0.98 USD In Stock

Mollie Smith Waters

Mollie Smith Waters teaches American literature, theater, and speech at a small community college in rural Alabama. Her hobbies include reading, writing, traveling, and walking.


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