The Secret of Magic [NOOK Book]


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...
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The Secret of Magic

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When African-American WWII veteran Joe Howard Wilson, returning home to Mississippi in 1945, is killed in what appears to be a racially motivated crime, his family’s former employer writes to legendary NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall for help. Johnson’s spirited sophomore novel (following The Air Between Us) explores racial boundaries in 1940s Mississippi through the eyes of Regina Robichard, a young black lawyer from Harlem sent to investigate the murder in Marshall’s stead. Upon arriving in Revere, Miss., Regina discovers that, although the stories that she has heard of overt racism and strictly enforced Jim Crow laws are true, the reality is much more complicated. Unlike New York, where “races rarely mingled”, here they lived “right on top of each other, constantly traipsing in and out of one another’s lives.” Joe Howard’s father, Willie Willie, has taught generations of children, both black and white, the secrets of the surrounding forests. Yet many of these children, now adults, are the very people who want to sweep his son’s death under the carpet. Inspired by the story of African-American WWII veteran Isaac Woodard, who was blinded by a South Carolina policeman following his service, , this novel presents a spirited portrayal of the postwar South, though heavy-handed storytelling keeps the characters from fully coming alive. Agent: Harvey Klinger, Harvey Klinger Inc. (Jan.)
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-11-17
Mississippi-based author Johnson's second novel (The Air Between Us, 2008). The book is about a young black lawyer facing the complexities of race relations in the 1946 South. It offers a somewhat romantic but emotionally affecting take on the period after World War II, when returning African-American soldiers were no longer willing to be treated as inferior citizens and the NAACP was laying groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Regina Robichard is a Columbia Law School grad working for the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund in New York City when her mentor, Thurgood Marshall—whose saintly portrayal would be wearying if he were more actively involved in the story—receives a request to investigate the death of decorated serviceman Joe Howard Wilson, killed on his way home to Revere, Miss. The request has come from Mary P. Calhoun, a white woman in Revere who employs Wilson's father, Willie Willie. Regina, whose own father was lynched in Omaha, Neb., before she was born, gets Marshall to send her to Revere. The case interests her in part because she recognizes that M.P. Calhoun authored her favorite childhood novel, about three children, two white and one black, sharing adventures in a magical forest under the tutelage of a wise black man. The novel, which includes an unsolved murder, was banned in Mississippi, but Mary, who may remind readers of Harper Lee, lives on in Revere as a member of the landed old-money gentry. Staying in a cottage Mary built for Willie Willie in her backyard, Regina soon realizes that the white citizens, including Mary herself, seem to be protecting the obvious murderer. But motives and black-white interdependency prove more complex than Regina expected. Most confusing for Regina is her own reaction to Mary Calhoun, her idol and nemesis—and possibly her friend. Passionate but never didactic, Johnson wisely allows the novel's politics to play second fiddle to the intimate, nuanced drama of the young black Yankee and middle-aged white Southerner in this provocative story about race in America that becomes a deeply felt metaphor for all human relationships.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780698161603
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 1/21/2014
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 46,306
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Deborah Johnson is the author of The Secret of Magic and The Air Between Us, which received the Mississippi Library Association Award for Fiction.
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Read an Excerpt

Regina Mary Robichard noticed the envelope as soon as she
entered her office. Fat and cream-colored, it lay there among
the business letters, newspapers, and circulars on her small desk. It
looked out of place, like an invitation. Not just any invitation, either,
but an opening to something she might actually like to attend. Later,
it was the photograph within that envelope that would capture her
attention, and keep it. But for now the envelope itself was enough.
She had come in on a Saturday with the idea of working for a few
hours and then, since she was downtown, rewarding herself with a
little shopping at Best & Co. or at Peck & Peck. There was a sale on
hats at Gimbels, but she had a lot of hats and didn’t really need more.
She’d read about another good deal, this one for better suits, at May
D& F and a new movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, which was playing
at the Rialto in Times Square. She thought about taking that in
as well. If she was lucky, all of this might keep her out of her new
stepfather’s house, and her mother—or, rather, her parents—would
be asleep when she came in.
It was a legend in the family how Regina, when she was little,
under six, would go up to a man—any man—who had come to hear
one of her famous mother’s famous speeches and say, “Would you
like to marry my mommy? Would you like to be my daddy?” Often
the men she asked did not know how to take this. They’d duck.
They’d turn away. Of course they all knew what had happened to
Oscar Robichard, not that long ago in Omaha, Nebraska. They
wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t, and they were all sympathetic.
But nobody wanted to be Regina’s daddy. Nobody had wanted
to marry her mother. Until now.
“Monday,” Regina said aloud, “I’ve got to start looking for my
own place.” I’ve got a job now, and my own life. It’s time.
Behind her, she left the main door unlocked and opened a crack
in case someone else came in, always a possibility on a Saturday here
at the LDF, or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as it was more
formally known. People worked late; they came in on weekends.
There was always that much to do. Regina shared her space with
three other lawyers, all of them men, one of them white. None of
whom exactly relished having a woman in their midst. They never
said this, not outright, but it was implied in their stories that stopped
in mid-?sentence, in laughter that abruptly died when she came into
the room. She suspected that half the male lawyers thought she was
here because her mother was Ida Jane Robichard, the other half because
of the way that her father had died. They were all wrong. Regina
knew she was here because she was born to be here, born to
value the law and its order. With her history, who wouldn’t? But this
didn’t stop her from sometimes feeling . . . well, strange.
Especially because she sat directly across from Edgar Morrison
Moseley III (“But my friends call me Skip”), hired as a staff lawyer
three weeks before she’d been, fully as ambitious as she was herself,
and the nemesis of what she liked to call her “legal life.” Skip had
never been happy to have a woman in the office, a fact he made
abundantly clear. Invariably, the women lawyers he talked about had
something in common with Regina—“Hey, she looked exactly like
you look. Graduated Columbia, too. I was astounded”—and they all
ended up in either a sad or bad way.
“War’s over. Women need to do their duty, go back home and
make babies. A woman working takes a job away from a family
man.” This was his continual refrain, called out whenever he thought
Regina might be listening. Once he’d actually lectured her to her
face while they were having sandwiches and coffee at the Forty-?second
Street Automat. “You need to get yourself married, settle
down.” Ida Jane might have slugged him, but Regina didn’t. She just
made her excuses and caught a cab home.
“Why do you even date such a jerk?” Ida Jane had looked up from
the piece she was writing, her brow still creased in concentration,
splotches of fountain-pen ink dotting her hand.
“It wasn’t a date, not really,” Regina answered. “We’d worked
late, decided to go out, that was all. Besides, Skip’s got a right to his
opinion. I just can’t let his opinion interfere with my life.”
“Got to change some laws if you want to make sure that doesn’t
happen.” Ida Jane rolled her eyes, shook her head. “But I guess that’s
why you’re working over there at the Fund.”
Now Regina pulled off kid gloves and a veiled felt hat and put
them on a wooden chair. She glanced from the small room in which
she stood to a smaller room next to it, which was stacked floor to
ceiling with alphabetized manila envelopes. This was her special
place, the reason she’d come to work on such a sunny Saturday
morning. “Reggie’s Realm,” the others called it, relieved that it was
her responsibility and not theirs. These were her cases. Thousands of
them, sent in by Negro servicemen who had been court-martialed
or dishonorably discharged for doing what a white man had gotten
away with doing or been slightly reprimanded for doing.
“My name is Legion,” Thurgood Marshall had said when he’d
handed them over while out of the corner of her eye Regina had seen
Skip smirk. They were not considered a gift and had been assigned
to her because she had been the last one hired, and could be the first
one fired, if she wasn’t careful. If she didn’t keep her nose to the
grindstone and work hard. But she had surprised herself by actually
liking the cases—or “the causes,” as she began calling them, though
only to herself. She looked forward to opening each new envelope,
reading through its depositions and briefs, getting to know men who
had laid out their grievances in their own measured, carefully
written-out words.
Still, the fat, cream-colored envelope beckoned her first.
She walked across the linoleum floor to take it into her hands, to
weigh and measure it. Vellum, she thought, a good one. Being able
to distinguish standard bond from good vellum was something that
she knew how to do.
The writing on the envelope was in a spidery Palmer penmanship
and addressed to Thurgood Marshall, Regina’s boss. The name
Thurgood Marshall had no Mr. before it. There was no Esquire behind
it. It had been sent to him care of something called the Negro
Legal Office, 69 Fifth Avenue, New York 10, New York. The street
address, at least, was correct. The fact that it had been mandated to
Thurgood did not stop Regina from opening it. She had taken the
New York State bar examination two weeks before and was waiting
for the result. But before moving into a new position as staff attorney,
she had clerked for Thurgood during her last year at Columbia
Law, and she was used to opening anything that came to the office
and was addressed to him. Even now, when he was out of town,
which was often, the secretaries routinely brought his letters to her,
and she went through everything that was not marked private. This
envelope was not marked private.
The cleaning people had been in the night before, and the shades
and windows had been opened to let in the fresh air. This far down
Fifth Avenue there was little noise drifting up from the street on a
Saturday morning, and from the other offices that surrounded theirs,
even less. Not like Harlem, where she’d just come from and which,
even at this early hour, was already alive to the full and syncopated
rhythm of its day. For a moment, Regina just stood there, listening
to the silence.
She looked for but could not find her letter opener, and so she
used her fingertip to open the flap. This proved to be quite easy. The
glue had been licked down only on the tip, but Regina’s nail polish—
Elizabeth Arden’s Montezuma Red, worn patriotically during the
war and still not abandoned—left a slender crimson wheal along the
heavy ivory paper. Regina did not notice this. The envelope’s contents,
newspaper clippings, showered onto the tidy plane of her desk.
She did not stop to study these. There was a snapshot as well, and
she paused over it.
The photograph was of an old Negro man, his face ashy and
worn, and gone not wrinkly but ropey in the way that black skin
aged. He was smiling and holding on for dear life to a man younger
than he was but who looked just like him. His son. The old man had
on a white shirt that was carefully ironed but obviously threadbare.
Regina could tell this even in black and white. His son was decked
out in a splendid U. S Army–issue uniform, clearly brand-new. Even 
though the two of them were looking into the camera, they were
beaming at each other. She wondered, for a moment, where the
mother was, then decided that, of course, the mother was the one
who had taken the photograph. Who else could have captured such
love? After a moment, Regina started reading.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 22, 2014

    Deborah Johnson¿s ¿The Secret of Magic¿ is that rare book that t

    Deborah Johnson’s “The Secret of Magic” is that rare book that truly makes you glad civilization has made the advances they have. The racial strife and tensions of that time period, for blacks and whites, was truly horrifying. Just as people were appalled at the atrocities of World War II once details started to emerge, so should we continually be appalled at the way people behaved during that time period.

    Without books like “The Help” and “The Secret of Magic,” I probably would not have been as cognizant of how bad things really were. I’ve never had to walk down the street and be expected to move out of the way for someone else (other than common courtesy) or face their wrath. I’ve never had to wonder whether I could open the door of a restaurant or shop and freely walk in. I’ve never had to move to the back of a bus to make room for those who were considered superior. And I’ve never had to use a drinking fountain or other amenity that was designated for my race only. For a land that offered freedom and opportunity to all men, these things were, and always will be, unacceptable.

    “The Secret of Magic” magically took me to that place. I felt suffocated, trapped and helpless against the way things were. And it wasn’t only the injustices to the black community that offended me. I would not have wanted to live in the white world at that time either. With their secrets, their hidden truths and half-truths and overall hypocrisy, the South at that time was as cloying and stifling as the humid air and the kudzu that wrapped itself around the South and choked the life out of it.

    The author couldn’t have done a better job with Regina Robichard, the main heroine. She was empathic and kind, but also determined to get justice. Acting on her feelings, and caring for the feelings of others, she slowly tries to work out the truth against tremendous odds. I know the resolution of each individual case that came out of those times and situations was different, but in the end, we all lost out. The blight of racial inequality is something that no one can win or erase.

    15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2014

    The Secret Is Out!

    The secret is out -- The Secret of Magic is a beautiful novel!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 9, 2014


    Can somebody whose finished this book please explain where regina got the key to the cell???

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 28, 2014

    Great read

    Being African American, I thought I would not enjoy but this was a great book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2014

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