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Echoes of a summer of living dangerously

Magic Time
By Doug Marlette
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 480 pp., $25

Doug Marlette's "Magic Time" is a touching memorial to the spirited young activists who paid the ultimate price in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964. In a remarkable portrayal of the intricate lives of his characters, the prize-winning master storyteller knits a beguiling tale of love, idealism, family, mystery , and long-awaited triumph of justice.

"Magic Time" vividly captures the spirit of an era of epic change that energized thousands across the North and the South who were part of an unforgettable chapter in American history. It was the summer that rewrote America's destiny, and Marlette , in a fair and accountable effort , brings the people from that period alive.

The book, the second novel by Marlette, a Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist, is a complex blend of historical details, mysterious family relations, greed for power and dominance , and tragic anecdotes. It reopens the murder case of four young civil rights activists, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee .

The story revolves around Carter Ransom, a New York Examiner columnist who grew up in Troy, Miss., during the Shiloh Baptist Church bombing. Carter had been in love with one of the victims of the bombing, Sarah Solomon, a Jewish civil rights worker from New York . His father, Judge Mitchell Ransom, presided over the murder trial . Now, three decades later, after a terrorist group bombs a Manhattan museum and Carter suffers an emotional breakdown, he comes home to recuperate.

Carter has never fully come to terms with Sarah's death, and he is drawn to the reopening of the Shiloh bombing case. An ambitious young state prosecutor, Sydney Rushton, finds evidence that the trial was faulty , even fraudulent. Two men were convicted, but the instigator, Samuel Bohannon, Ku Klux Klan imperial wizard, along with his second-in-command , Glen Boutwell, had escaped conviction . Boutwell has died, but Bohannon becomes the target of the second trial, with Lacey Hullender, a former Klansman, testifying against him. Sydney is bent on collecting all evidence against Bohannon and anyone who gets in her way, including Carter's father, who supposedly covered up the crime . Carter, meanwhile, discovers many more unpleasant secrets about his father's life and develops a tense relationship with him.

In "Magic Time," Marlette paints a detailed picture of a unique time in a town in the Deep South . He moves back and forth between the events of 1964 and the second trial, in the early 1990s , reinforcing his place as a writer of Southern fiction , after his debut novel, "The Bridge." He has an understanding of the region in the tumultuous days of the civil rights movement, and of its reshaping in the aftermath.

"Magic Time" is a page-turner , its intricate plot matched by the profundity of its moral vision. It is a compelling legal thriller, touching tribute, and zesty love story, rolled into one . Marlette has crafted an exceptional work of Southern fiction.

Surekha Vijh is an award-winning poet and journalist based in New York.

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