Written By: Deborah Johnson
Published By: Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Putnam Books January 21, 2014
Length: 416 pages
Joe Howard Wilson is a WWII veteran returning home, home being Revere Mississippi. He’s just finished his time, honorably discharged and while he served in a very segregated Army, he’s a proud black man. He is thrilled to be heading home to his father, Willie Willie. Joe Howard is doing his best to just mind his business and get home. Traveling from Alabama into Mississippi he knows how most people feel about people like him, he knows his “place” even if it’s not a role he likes.
Only Joe Howard doesn’t make it home, and his body shows in in the river near his home. Surprisingly a grand jury is called and his death is ruled an accident.
In New York city Regina Robichard is opening a large envelope at her job of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It’s full of newspaper clippings, clippings about Joe Howard, a photo of a young army officer and a man presumed to be his father, and a letter from Mary Pickett Calhoun, a letter that asks Thurgood Marshall himself to come to Revere MS and investigate this matter for the father of the Joe Howard, Willie Willie. She offers to pay all expenses. Mary Pickett also identifies herself as M P Calhoun, the author of a best selling book read by many including Regina, The Secret of Magic.
So begins the journey and string of unanswered questions that face Regina. She asks to travel to Revere MS herself, her first trip to the south, where she learns that segregation in the south is quite different than the north she is accustomed to. Regina learns this and so much more.
As I began reading of Joe Howard’s bus ride through Alabama and into Mississippi I anticipated the problems he might encounter. The attitudes and racist actions that were still acceptable in the 1946 South are difficult to read. While not new to me, it was sad to read of a proud man who had served our nation, and yet he was treated so poorly. While this is integral to the story, the real story for me began as Regina opened the envelope from Mary Pickett and began her fascination with his story.
Regina is a woman who has known loss, and racial hatred within her own family. Her mother has raised her strong and independent. She’s thrilled and honored to have just taken the New York Bar exam and is working for Thurgood Marshall, whom she had interned with. She realizes quickly that the South is indeed different. She has to a Colored only train car in Richmond VA and must sit in the back of the bus in Birmingham. Revere MS is like stepping back in time, white people run everything, and it’s the first time she’s actually seen separate drinking fountains for white and colored people. She is taken aback by all this. She’s also quite put off by Mary Pickett Calhoun, daughter of the now deceased Judge Calhoun. She lives in a big old grand house, and out back is a cottage that belongs to Willie Willie, but he no longer stays there, but it is where Regina will stay, not at a hotel. Mary Pickett appears cool to Regina, and not at all impressed that she, a colored woman lawyer, has been sent to seek justice for Joe Howard.
This is a book you must read to appreciate the nuances and pacing of the South. Perhaps because I’ve spent most of my life in some part of the south I wasn’t shocked when there was still a Confederate flag flying over their courthouse. There was no hiding the way whites felt about Regina, she garnered no respect because of her education or where she was from. Regina sought answers, even when it appeared everyone in town knew what really happened to Joe Howard, but had decided to sweep it under the rug.
The other story is the book M P Calhoun wrote, The Secret of Magic, in which three children are inseparable, a girl, a white boy and a colored boy. Regina’s memories of this book, hers and others play an important role in the larger story.
I simply loved this book, I loved the language, I cringed and cried for the harsh and unfair treatment of Joe Howard and all the black people of that time and place. I wanted to scream at Regina to be careful, to watch her step and to be afraid of these smiling people. Deborah Johnson has written this book with so much love and heart that it came alive to me from page one. I read this with my online group, the hashtags and we had mixed reviews of this one. Some thought it moved too slowly, some thought it didn’t teach anything new, but I felt it all came together well. Secrets in small towns are as frequent and fast as kudzu, and Revere MS was hiding and covering up it’s dirty secrets quite feverishly.
Available today, I highly recommend The Secret of Magic.