The Secret of Magic is profoundly sad. Reggie’s first-time experiences in the Jim Crow South are just as upsetting for readers as they are for Reggie. What makes it worse is that none of hatred and deliberate separate-and-unequal treatment should be as surprising as it is, even to a black girl raised solely in the North. For those raised in this era, or those who grew up learning about it from their parents’ knees, the hardships incurred by blacks at the hands of their white “neighbors” are stories with which most people are familiar. Ms. Johnson takes these stories, however, and makes them personal. Through Reggie, readers experience what she experiences, feel her pain and indignation, understand her frustrations, and celebrate her minor victories. Through Ms. Johnson’s appealing narration, the reader simply becomes Reggie. It is its own version of magic very few authors can manage.
There is a futility to Reggie’s trip to Mississippi that lingers over the entire story. One instinctively knows that she is not going to obtain the justice she so desperately hopes to seek for her client. She cannot change the Deep South as much as she hopes to do so. However, Reggie’s indomitable will prevents the story from bogging down into deep melancholy. Her goal might be futile, but she refuses to give into pressure to let go of the case. Her determination to stick to her plan and the methods by which she does so are heroic in their audacity and bravery. She is a woman who knows who she is and who is not afraid to show that self-satisfaction to the world. She may not be able to change the Jim Crow laws, but she definitely leaves her mark on that little Mississippi town.
While The Secret of Magic is all about the power of stories – Reggie’s fascination with her childhood version of The Secret of Magic, Willie Willie’s amusing narratives, M. P. Calhoun’s lessons on life in the Deep South – it is also about the power of one person willing to take a stand and make a difference. Each of the characters makes a statement in their own way, whether it is a story about a racially mixed group of friends or demands for justice for a lynched black man. These small statements coalesce into an environment in which change is not only possible but inevitable. Reggie is merely the catalyst.
There is much to love about The Secret of Magic. Its story is both familiar and yet shocking in its abruptness. The characters are true Southern stars – each vibrant and alive with a dimensionality to them that makes it easy to forget that it is a work of fiction. Combine that with the most excellent historical details and descriptions, and the entire story becomes something more than the sum of its parts. It is a story meant to entertain and educate as well as provide hope that even the smallest of little revolts can have major consequences. It is a fitting tribute to those who really did work with Thurgood Marshall in the NAACP and those black soldiers who not only fought in the war but fought for the equality they so richly deserved when they came home.