Mississippi-based author Johnson’s second novel (The Air Between Us, 2008).
The book is about a young black lawyer facing the complexities of race relations in the 1946 South. It offers a somewhat romantic but emotionally affecting take on the period after World War II, when returning African-American soldiers were no longer willing to be treated as inferior citizens and the NAACP was laying groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Regina Robichard is a Columbia Law School grad working for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in New York City when her mentor, Thurgood Marshall—whose saintly portrayal would be wearying if he were more actively involved in the story—receives a request to investigate the death of decorated serviceman Joe Howard Wilson, killed on his way home to Revere, Miss. The request has come from Mary P. Calhoun, a white woman in Revere who employs Wilson’s father, Willie Willie. Regina, whose own father was lynched in Omaha, Neb., before she was born, gets Marshall to send her to Revere. The case interests her in part because she recognizes that M.P. Calhoun authored her favorite childhood novel, about three children, two white and one black, sharing adventures in a magical forest under the tutelage of a wise black man. The novel, which includes an unsolved murder, was banned in Mississippi, but Mary, who may remind readers of Harper Lee, lives on in Revere as a member of the landed old-money gentry. Staying in a cottage Mary built for Willie Willie in her backyard, Regina soon realizes that the white citizens, including Mary herself, seem to be protecting the obvious murderer. But motives and black-white interdependency prove more complex than Regina expected. Most confusing for Regina is her own reaction to Mary Calhoun, her idol and nemesis—and possibly her friend.
Passionate but never didactic, Johnson wisely allows the novel’s politics to play second fiddle to the intimate, nuanced drama of the young black Yankee and middle-aged white Southerner in this provocative story about race in America that becomes a deeply felt metaphor for all human relationships.