All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Secret Of Magic – Deborah Johnson

on February 14, 2014

Secret of MagicThe Secret Of Magic
Deborah Johnson
Penguin Books AUS
2014, 394p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

In 1946, Regina Robichard is hired by Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Legan Defense Fund. She has sat the bar in New York but will not hear of her results for another couple of weeks. One Saturday whilst hard at work, Regina opens a letter address to Marshall from a famous reclusive children’s author, M.P Calhoun.

Calhoun asks Thurgood Marshall to travel to the town of Revere in Mississippi to investigate the murder of returned serviceman Joe Howard Wilson, a black man who was a decorated lieutenant. Wilson boarded a bus bound for home and he called his father Willie Willie at the Alabama border to say he’d arrive in a couple of hours. However he never arrived in his hometown. Two weeks later his murdered body was found floating in a river. It was determined that for some reason, Joe Howard Wilson got off the bus.

Regina begs for permission to go to Mississippi herself and investigate the case and reluctantly, Thurgood Marshall gives it, allowing her no more than three weeks. Although she might be black herself, Regina is from New York where she has an education and will be admitted to the bar. She’s unprepared for what life is like in deepest Mississippi where blacks are still supposed to go to the back door, are banned from some cafes and cannot sit the bar. However Regina is a determined woman and she’s out for the ultimate prize, the impossible in Mississippi – justice for a black man and his father.

This book is kind of being pushed towards fans of The Help and I can see why. I read and really enjoyed The Help a couple of years go and there’s no denying it’s a book that highlights a really shameful period in history, a time that isn’t all that long ago. This book does even more to highlight it, putting the reader in the midst of what is a really horrible crime to an honourable man.

Who murdered Joe Howard Wilson isn’t a secret, not even from the reader. It’s pretty easy to guess, even before the book reveals it. It’s also no secret to pretty much everyone in the small town of Revere but even though there was a Grand Inquiry on Wilson’s death, it returned a finding of accidental death which everyone knows is just laughable. Anyone who was there and could provide a truthful account wasn’t there and anyone who could be bought to say anything, was. Regina even before she arrives in Revere, is determined to get to the bottom of what really happened and see justice served in some way. Even when the town doesn’t help her and becomes downright aggressive at times, she doesn’t flinch.

Regina is from New York and even though there are clear ‘black areas’ there, she hasn’t faced the segregation that was in the South. She catches a train most of the way from New York to Mississippi and part of the way there she has to leave her nice new carriage and move down the back to the old, rattly derelict carriages that are ‘for coloreds’. Likewise she has to take a seat in the colored section on the bus going to Revere and whilst in Revere is thrown out of a cafe and talked down to. Even though she’s a lawyer, she’s still a black woman and in Revere she should probably be someone’s maid. Even someone as familiar with blacks as M.P Calhoun, who called her down there in an attempt to get justice for Willie Willie (which is not quite as straightforward as it looks) still has a black maid so young she looks like she should still be in middle school. Regina always means to talk to Calhoun about these issues but there’s always just that little too much going on.

One of the first things that Regina sees when she arrives in Revere is that the Confederate flag flies outside of the courthouse (the “stars and bars”). She’s so highly insulted to even see it (it also gives her a bit of an idea of what she might be in for) and it made me remember that some parts of Mississippi still display it today, as mentioned in John Safran’s recent non-fiction novel, Murder In Mississippi.  My knowledge of American history is patchy at best but even I know the Confederates were all about separating from the United States after Lincoln was elected and wanted to abolish slavery, believing that they were being humiliated and allying more to the “South” than their country. They were soundly beaten and the flag has become a source of much controversy ever since. It’s been resurrected in times over history, most notably in the 1950s in areas like Mississippi when desegregation of schools began.

It’s very confronting to realise how short a time ago this period in history was, coming right on the end of the Second World War. This was a book that often made me so mad but not in the usual way that books infuriate me. It was difficult to read because of the attitudes that were portrayed and the difficulty Regina had in getting anyone to care. Those who did care couldn’t do anything and those who could do something, didn’t care. Joe Howard Wilson was a black man and therefore it was no real loss that he was gone. Never mind that he’d fought in a war, gotten an education, wanted to further it. He was a second class citizen who tried to stand up for himself and got what was coming to him.

I admired Regina for sticking it out, even when it seemed hopeless. And I have to admit, the ending was not what I suspected. I’m not sure I should refer to it as a “pleasant surprise” but that’s kind of how I felt about it when I read it.


Book #37 of 2014


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