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.
Praise for The Secret of Magic
"There are a million metaphors I could use to describe Deborah Johnson's writing in The Secret of Magic—but all of them are inadequate in conveying the ebb and flow of her phrasing or the care in crafting her characters.... If you liked The Help, you'll love this one! ... [T]he cadence of Johnson's writing is an absolute joy.... I can't think of any other recent book in which I have so enjoyed an author's actual stringing-together-of-words." —EW.com
“I found this story about race, The South, our country, part history, part mystery—never disappointing. Like The South she tragically portrays, The Secret of Magic is a layered tale of the best and worst of our history, beautifully wrought by a master storyteller.”—Robert Hicks, New York Times bestselling author of Widow of the South
“The secret (and magic) in The Secret of Magic is in Deborah Johnson’s powerful writing, creating character and story that will linger long after the reading.”—Terry Kay, author of To Dance with the White Dog
“I am mightily impressed with her work. Johnson’s story brings authentic history to light, yet suggests a seed of reconciliation. Fantastic!”—Augusta Trobaugh, author of Sophie and the Rising Sun
“You can almost hear the rustle of Spanish moss and the clink of ice cubes in glasses of sweet tea in Johnson’s novel, which captures the duality of the Jim Crow South…As Regina navigates Revere with both horror and wonder, Johnson interweaves her story with a novel by a local matriarch, steeping the reader in town mythology…[A] rich portrayal of Revere and its inhabitants.”—Entertainment Weekly (A-)