We all know the cliché “don’t judge a book by its cover” but, in reality, I imagine most of us do exactly that. And that is unfortunate for The Secret of Magic with its pretty picture of a sun-dappled road stretching through a tunnel of arching trees. It suggests a sweet, pleasant, gentle read of a chick-lit persuasion, thereby robbing the book of lots of readers that would appreciate this fascinating glimpse into the horribly rough treatment of black Americans in the south following the second World War. This book deserves a much wider audience than its cover, and title, suggest.
On his way home from the war, a decorated black lieutenant goes missing before he arrives in his hometown in Mississippi. He is found, dead, two weeks later. Regina Robichard, the first woman to be hired by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is sent from New York to investigate and to attempt to find justice. She is summonsed, and hosted, by the reclusive M. P. Calhoun, author of a bestselling and racially controversial children’s book The Secret of Magic, who is also the employer of the dead man’s father. Regina quickly establishes who has murdered Joe Howard; it seems the whole town knows. However, the perpetrator is white and wealthy.
“…Folks feel bad about Joe Howard. They want to help.” … Jackson shook his head, a man who needed to tell a hard fact. “Killing a colored man’s not the same down here as killing a white man. It may be in other places… But not here, where we’re dealing with a certain history, with a certain way that things have to be done.”
The Secret of Magic is not a gentle read, at least not in parts. The racial bigotry and, let’s be frank, the utter cruelty to which black Americans were subjected in the far-too-recent past is hideous and makes for a gripping, though sobering, story. The Author’s Note at the conclusion of the book makes it clear that most of those events are, unfortunately, not fiction. The tagline on the front cover declares that “if you liked The Help, you will love The Secret of Magic” and that is probably true. There is a certain similarity between the two books, with their depiction of the beauty of the deep south, its stately homes and fine manners, muddied by racism. However, The Secret of Magic is grittier, despite its deceptively gentle cover.
The book is many layered and cleverly written. The fictional children’s book The Secret of Magic adds a story within the story which weaves in and out of the lives of the characters. No one is quite as straightforward as they seem. It is very skilfully done.
The Secret of Magic is a book that will move you. Ultimately, whether you love or hate the writing style or the characters, the historical truths upon which the story is based will fascinate and horrify you.
Review by Tiffany Matsis
The Secret of Magic
by Deborah Johnson
Published by Fig Tree