The Secret of Magic

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9780399157721: The Secret of Magic

In 1946, a young female attorney from New York City attempts the impossible: attaining justice for a black man in the Deep South.


 

Regina Robichard works for Thurgood Marshall, who receives an unusual letter asking the NAACP to investigate the murder of a returning black war hero. It is signed by M. P. Calhoun, the most reclusive author in the country.
 

As a child, Regina was captivated by Calhoun’s The Secret of Magic, a novel in which white and black children played together in a magical forest.

Once down in Mississippi, Regina finds that nothing in the South is as it seems. She must navigate the muddy waters of racism, relationships, and her own tragic past. The Secret of Magic brilliantly explores the power of stories and those who tell them.

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About the Author:

Deborah Johnson is the author of The Air Between Us, which received the Mississippi Library Association Award for fiction. She now lives in Columbus, Mississippi, and is working on her next novel. 

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Regina Mary Robichard noticed the envelope as soon as she

entered her office. Fat and cream-colored, it lay there among

the business letters, newspapers, and circulars on her small desk. It

looked out of place, like an invitation. Not just any invitation, either,

but an opening to something she might actually like to attend. Later,

it was the photograph within that envelope that would capture her

attention, and keep it. But for now the envelope itself was enough.

She had come in on a Saturday with the idea of working for a few

hours and then, since she was downtown, rewarding herself with a

little shopping at Best & Co. or at Peck & Peck. There was a sale on

hats at Gimbels, but she had a lot of hats and didn’t really need more.

She’d read about another good deal, this one for better suits, at May

D& F and a new movie, The Best Years of Our Lives, which was playing

at the Rialto in Times Square. She thought about taking that in

as well. If she was lucky, all of this might keep her out of her new

stepfather’s house, and her mother—or, rather, her parents—would

be asleep when she came in.

It was a legend in the family how Regina, when she was little,

under six, would go up to a man—any man—who had come to hear

one of her famous mother’s famous speeches and say, “Would you

like to marry my mommy? Would you like to be my daddy?” Often

the men she asked did not know how to take this. They’d duck.

They’d turn away. Of course they all knew what had happened to

Oscar Robichard, not that long ago in Omaha, Nebraska. They

wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t, and they were all sympathetic.

But nobody wanted to be Regina’s daddy. Nobody had wanted

to marry her mother. Until now.

“Monday,” Regina said aloud, “I’ve got to start looking for my

own place.” I’ve got a job now, and my own life. It’s time.

Behind her, she left the main door unlocked and opened a crack

in case someone else came in, always a possibility on a Saturday here

at the LDF, or the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, as it was more

formally known. People worked late; they came in on weekends.

There was always that much to do. Regina shared her space with

three other lawyers, all of them men, one of them white. None of

whom exactly relished having a woman in their midst. They never

said this, not outright, but it was implied in their stories that stopped

in mid-?sentence, in laughter that abruptly died when she came into

the room. She suspected that half the male lawyers thought she was

here because her mother was Ida Jane Robichard, the other half because

of the way that her father had died. They were all wrong. Regina

knew she was here because she was born to be here, born to

value the law and its order. With her history, who wouldn’t? But this

didn’t stop her from sometimes feeling . . . well, strange.

Especially because she sat directly across from Edgar Morrison

Moseley III (“But my friends call me Skip”), hired as a staff lawyer

three weeks before she’d been, fully as ambitious as she was herself,

and the nemesis of what she liked to call her “legal life.” Skip had

never been happy to have a woman in the office, a fact he made

abundantly clear. Invariably, the women lawyers he talked about had

something in common with Regina—“Hey, she looked exactly like

you look. Graduated Columbia, too. I was astounded”—and they all

ended up in either a sad or bad way.

“War’s over. Women need to do their duty, go back home and

make babies. A woman working takes a job away from a family

man.” This was his continual refrain, called out whenever he thought

Regina might be listening. Once he’d actually lectured her to her

face while they were having sandwiches and coffee at the Forty-?second

Street Automat. “You need to get yourself married, settle

down.” Ida Jane might have slugged him, but Regina didn’t. She just

made her excuses and caught a cab home.

“Why do you even date such a jerk?” Ida Jane had looked up from

the piece she was writing, her brow still creased in concentration,

splotches of fountain-pen ink dotting her hand.

“It wasn’t a date, not really,” Regina answered. “We’d worked

late, decided to go out, that was all. Besides, Skip’s got a right to his

opinion. I just can’t let his opinion interfere with my life.”

“Got to change some laws if you want to make sure that doesn’t

happen.” Ida Jane rolled her eyes, shook her head. “But I guess that’s

why you’re working over there at the Fund.”

Now Regina pulled off kid gloves and a veiled felt hat and put

them on a wooden chair. She glanced from the small room in which

she stood to a smaller room next to it, which was stacked floor to

ceiling with alphabetized manila envelopes. This was her special

place, the reason she’d come to work on such a sunny Saturday

morning. “Reggie’s Realm,” the others called it, relieved that it was

her responsibility and not theirs. These were her cases. Thousands of

them, sent in by Negro servicemen who had been court-martialed

or dishonorably discharged for doing what a white man had gotten

away with doing or been slightly reprimanded for doing.

“My name is Legion,” Thurgood Marshall had said when he’d

handed them over while out of the corner of her eye Regina had seen

Skip smirk. They were not considered a gift and had been assigned

to her because she had been the last one hired, and could be the first

one fired, if she wasn’t careful. If she didn’t keep her nose to the

grindstone and work hard. But she had surprised herself by actually

liking the cases—or “the causes,” as she began calling them, though

only to herself. She looked forward to opening each new envelope,

reading through its depositions and briefs, getting to know men who

had laid out their grievances in their own measured, carefully

written-out words.

Still, the fat, cream-colored envelope beckoned her first.

She walked across the linoleum floor to take it into her hands, to

weigh and measure it. Vellum, she thought, a good one. Being able

to distinguish standard bond from good vellum was something that

she knew how to do.

The writing on the envelope was in a spidery Palmer penmanship

and addressed to Thurgood Marshall, Regina’s boss. The name

Thurgood Marshall had no Mr. before it. There was no Esquire behind

it. It had been sent to him care of something called the Negro

Legal Office, 69 Fifth Avenue, New York 10, New York. The street

address, at least, was correct. The fact that it had been mandated to

Thurgood did not stop Regina from opening it. She had taken the

New York State bar examination two weeks before and was waiting

for the result. But before moving into a new position as staff attorney,

she had clerked for Thurgood during her last year at Columbia

Law, and she was used to opening anything that came to the office

and was addressed to him. Even now, when he was out of town,

which was often, the secretaries routinely brought his letters to her,

and she went through everything that was not marked private. This

envelope was not marked private.

The cleaning people had been in the night before, and the shades

and windows had been opened to let in the fresh air. This far down

Fifth Avenue there was little noise drifting up from the street on a

Saturday morning, and from the other offices that surrounded theirs,

even less. Not like Harlem, where she’d just come from and which,

even at this early hour, was already alive to the full and syncopated

rhythm of its day. For a moment, Regina just stood there, listening

to the silence.

She looked for but could not find her letter opener, and so she

used her fingertip to open the flap. This proved to be quite easy. The

glue had been licked down only on the tip, but Regina’s nail polish—

Elizabeth Arden’s Montezuma Red, worn patriotically during the

war and still not abandoned—left a slender crimson wheal along the

heavy ivory paper. Regina did not notice this. The envelope’s contents,

newspaper clippings, showered onto the tidy plane of her desk.

She did not stop to study these. There was a snapshot as well, and

she paused over it.

The photograph was of an old Negro man, his face ashy and

worn, and gone not wrinkly but ropey in the way that black skin

aged. He was smiling and holding on for dear life to a man younger

than he was but who looked just like him. His son. The old man had

on a white shirt that was carefully ironed but obviously threadbare.

Regina could tell this even in black and white. His son was decked

out in a splendid U. S Army–issue uniform, clearly brand-new. Even 

though the two of them were looking into the camera, they were

beaming at each other. She wondered, for a moment, where the

mother was, then decided that, of course, the mother was the one

who had taken the photograph. Who else could have captured such

love? After a moment, Regina started reading.

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