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Tucson Weekly Sorcerer's Apprentice

Jewell Parker Rhodes Renders A Magical Second Novel

By Hayward Allen

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Magic City, by Jewell Parker Rhodes (HarperCollins). Cloth, $23.

THE FIRST TWO rules of survival: dream what you need, and will yourself free," Houdini's ghost tells Joe Samuels in the Magic City jail. "Magic is in the hands, but also in the head, in the heart. It's a matter of will--wanting to live."

Joe is willing himself the power for a second escape from Tulsa's city jail, where he's being held, a black teenager, for the purported rape of Mary, a white woman. It's 1921, Decoration Day weekend in the Oklahoma oil town called "Magic City," but it's not patriotism that runs deeply on this memorial weekend--it's racism that plagues and touches everyone.

Jewell Parker Rhodes' novel is based upon true incidents related but altogether forgotten by blacks and whites alike. Rhodes, who directs ASU's creative writing program, may be remembered for her successful, off-beat novel, Voodoo Dreams. Instead of the Caribbean mysticism reflected in Dreams, however, Rhodes now explores the nether world of seance, conversing with the dead.

The reader realizes from the start Joe Samuels is the disenchanted son of the banker of Tulsa's black suburb, Greenwood. Content shining shoes at 18, he dreams of going to San Francisco, working basic magic and conjuring up the spirit of Harry Houdini. Plus, he's got plans to commune with his dead brother Henry Samuels, a World War I hero, who haunts the Samuels' household.

Mary Keane is the unmarried daughter of a farmer. Angular, unhappy with the knowledge that she'll probably become a spinster, Mary is raped by her father's hired hand, who promises to marry her. Desperate and disenchanted, she flees to Tulsa where she works as a department store elevator operator. Mary converses with her dead mother, whose advice she sorely needs.

While never lovers, Joe and Mary are star-crossed, as tragically as Romeo and Juliet. Their belief in ghostly communication further proves their undoing, providing the inspiration for the Ku Klux Klan and other Tulsa racists to gather for a good, ol'-fashioned public lynching. Innocence doesn't matter; just being alone with a white woman in a closed space is justification enough for injustice.

Magic plays a central role in Magic City. After surviving a chained and imprisoned drop from the Golden Gate Bridge, among other demonstrations of strength, young Joe possesses Houdini as a role model. Additionally, he depends upon his brother's advice from the other side, since no other adults, black or white, can tell him what to do to survive degradation and denigration.

Mary Keane becomes a pawn even after she attempts to convince Tulsa's sheriff and Joe's family of his innocence. Her only shoulder to lean on, reluctantly, is that of Allen Thornton, an albino watchmaker who loves her as he tries to rescue her from tyranny and the doom of the oncoming race war.

Joe is not alone in Greenwood, for there's a sizable contingent of black WWI veterans who aren't content to stand idly by and let him be lynched. The resulting mayhem takes on a magical patina covering the reader's own desire to see the KKK and community racists get their butts kicked, or killed.

Rhodes masterfully weaves Magic City's multiple conflicts: father-son, brother-brother, justice and politics, men and women, dream and reality. All are woven into a dark tapestry of greed and hatred that denies love and freedom. White violence, ritualized on a grand scale by "the war to end all wars," is localized by the moronic patriotism of the KKK. Rhodes, an African American woman, writes most strongly when she articulates the hatred and its horrific momentum.

Magic City is one of those fine novels one reads not because right makes might (good does not triumph), but because we need to remind ourselves of the sad failure to safely, thoroughly, integrate America's human community.

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