THE SECRET OF MAGIC has one of the strongest opening chapters I’ve read in a long time. Set in 1946 it depicts the attempted homecoming of a decorated Lieutenant who has a head full of nightmares from the battlefields of WWII. Joe Howard Wilson is desperate to see his father, to retreat to the familiar, to heal. But Joe Howard is black and when he is told he must give up his seat on the bus that is meant to take him home in favour of German prisoners of war – they’re white after all – he baulks at the injustice. And is subsequently murdered.
The opening made me cry. Not just because it is heart-wrenching itself or because I read it during a time when I could be forgiven for thinking the world hasn’t moved on much at all in 70 years. But because it is so well written. Only a few pages but they pack a punch; offering striking imagery, engaging character establishment and managing to set a powerful expectation for what is to come.
The rest of the book was something of a disappointment.
I’ve debated whether or not to write this review. I have found that it is usually better to say nothing than be drawn into the kind of unwinnable argument such sentiments often create. Perhaps it’s the way I do it but more often than not people think I’m siding with the “baddies” when I express a negative sentiment about a book (or movie or whatever) that explores a deeply traumatising event or element of history. For example when I remarked that I didn’t think 12 Years a Slave was as good a movie as all its hype had suggested someone I know asked how I could be supportive of slavery. The same person would undoubtedly think I support the killing of random black people if he knew I think THE SECRET OF MAGIC flawed too. I feel like it’s possible to separate my position on the real-world themes and history being depicted from the elements that make up a book. But maybe not? Or maybe I’m doing it wrong.
In support of my premise I’ll have ago. At talking about what I found disappointing about the book rather than what I do or don’t think about systemic racism.
The book felt like a bunch of set pieces, each one with the aim of reinforcing the notion that racism was rampant in Mississippi in the 40’s and racism is bad. Just to be clear I’m not arguing with any of that and am in no doubt that many horrendous things were done to black people in Mississippi in the 40’s for no other reason than white people could get away with doing them. But a work of fiction has to offer more than reportage. Doesn’t it? Surely it is meant to engage on another level too. Even if it has a really, really important message. As a reader I want to be kept interested in a story and its characters not just browbeaten or transported back to school.
Part of the reason the book didn’t work for me was its inclusion of a story within the story. One of the central characters – a white woman called M.P. Calhoun – is famous for having written a book many years ago in which black and white characters share adventures. Obviously that was a subversive concept for its time and so the book has a lot of importance for some of the characters. So this story, with magical realism overtones, is incorporated across the scope of the book via extract after extract. All of which completely failed to grab me. I found these passages repetitive and rambly and thought they contributed heavily to the slow pace of the narrative while not adding anything much to my understanding of the wider issues the author was addressing.
For me too the balance of historical fact and fiction was not right; too much of the former and too little of the latter. I think for example it’s difficult to use big, important names from history in this kind of fiction such as Johnson’s inclusion of Thurgood Marshall, founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, here. The man is legendary (even down here at the bottom of the world) and revered so there are great limitations on what you can do with such a character within a work of fiction. Authors who I think more successfully deploy real people in their fictional worlds either use lesser known names or place a more famous person in a time or place at which they weren’t yet known. Using Thurgood during the early years of the Legal Defense Fund did not provide much scope for creativity.
I did enjoy the depiction of Mary Pickett Calhoun: white and privileged yet the one who invites the NAACP to Revere Mississippi to investigate Joe Howard’s death. Her reasons for doing so are complex and the way the question of whether she really wants Regina Robichard – the black, female lawyer sent from New York – to find answers or only appear to be doing something is teased out across the novels offers a genuinely grey element to the novel. Everything and everyone else is, pardon the pun, too black and white for me.
I’m not suggesting THE SECRET OF MAGIC is a terrible book. But nor is it one that I will remember with fondness (or anger or any other strong emotion) as I imagined I would after that opening chapter. Nor do I mean to make light of the real world events on which it is based or the obvious personal connection the author has to many of its elements. But if it is permissible to set all that aside and just talk about whether or not the book ‘worked’ for me then it didn’t. I found its predictability and its focus on facts and teaching rather than engagement of the reader (at least this reader) on a creative level a struggle. It took me nearly three weeks to read and then it was only the promise of a glass of red when I finished that made me plough through the last 60 or so pages. Reading shouldn’t feel like taking medicine.
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This is the twelfth book I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge in which I’m aiming to read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.
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Publisher Fig Tree 
Length 400 pages
Book Series standalone
I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like this one more than you did, Bernadette. Sometimes the story-within-story structure doesn’t work as well for some readers as it does for others. And the other reservations you have are your right. To me, your feelings about the book have nothing to do with your opinions about racism, social structure, or anything else.
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Thoughtful and thought-provoking as always. You make a good point about the disadvantages of using a real person in a novel.
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Now I am even more conflicted about whether to read this book or not. I don’t enjoy reading about the South in that time period, but I had heard it was a really powerful book. I probably will give it a try some day, just to see for myself.
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We’re all different Tracy…and there are some strong elements