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Magic City

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Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. A white woman and a black man are alone in an elevator. Suddenly, the woman screams, the man runs out, and the chase to capture and lynch him begins.

When Joe, a young man trying to be the next Houdini, is accused of rape, he must perform his greatest escape by eluding a bloodthirsty lynch mob. And Mary, the motherless daughter of a farmer who tries to marry her off to the farmhand who viciously raped her, must find the courage to help exonerate the man she had accused with her panicked cry. Based on true events, Magic City is a portrait of an era, climaxing in the heroic but doomed stand that pitted the National Guard against a small band of black men determined to defend the town they had built into the "Negro Wall Street."

Named by the Chicago Tribune as a Favorite Book of 1997

288 pages, Paperback

First published June 1, 1997

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About the author

Jewell Parker Rhodes

33 books1,352 followers
Jewell Parker Rhodes has always loved reading and writing stories. Born and raised in Manchester, a largely African-American neighborhood on the North Side of Pittsburgh, she was a voracious reader as a child. She began college as a dance major, but when she discovered there were novels by African Americans, she knew she wanted to be an author. She wrote six novels for adults, two writing guides, and a memoir, but writing for children remained her dream.

Now she is the author of seven books for children including the New York Times bestsellers Ghost Boys and Black Brother, Black Brother. Her other books include Paradise on Fire, Towers Falling, and the Louisiana Girls Trilogy: Ninth Ward, Sugar, and Bayou Magic. She has also published six adult novels, two writing guides, and a memoir.

Jewell has received numerous honors including the American Book Award, the National Endowment of the Arts Award in Fiction, the Black Caucus of the American Library Award for Literary Excellence, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for Outstanding Writing, and a Coretta Scott King Honor.

When she’s not writing, she’s visiting schools to talk about her books with the kids who read them, or teaching writing at Arizona State University, where she is the Piper Endowed Chair and Founding Artistic Director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.

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5 stars
132 (36%)
4 stars
140 (39%)
3 stars
68 (19%)
2 stars
12 (3%)
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5 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 58 reviews
Profile Image for Regina.
1,136 reviews2,999 followers
June 6, 2021
May 31 - June 1, 2021 marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, the 1921 tragedy also known as the Black Wall Street Massacre and (formerly) the Tulsa race riot. After a 19-year-old Black man was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old White female in an elevator, a White mob was deputized and armed, martial law was declared, and an entire Black community was destroyed by aerial and ground attack. Approximately 10,000 people were left homeless, and 39 people were killed.

This is an event that, at least until now, has not been widely taught in US schools. It is gradually becoming more well known though given its inclusion in the recent TV series “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country,” plus news coverage of the 100th anniversary. Harper Perennial has also marked the occasion by reissuing the 1997 historical fiction novel about the event, Magic City.

Because not much is known about the young man and woman and their elevator encounter, it struck me as odd that author Jewell Parker Rhodes structured the novel so heavily on their characters. The first half of the novel is focused on learning their backstories and the events that lead up to the massacre. The man (here called “Joe”) is obsessed with Houdini, and entire chapters are dedicated to his delusions of communicating with him. The woman (“Mary”) is repentant about her involvement in inciting the events, and readers then follow her as she tries to help, make friends, and develop a romantic relationship along the way.

For me, Magic City is historical fiction with a little too much fiction and not enough history. While I do encourage everyone to learn more about this tragedy, I’m not entirely sure this is the best text for that purpose. If you go into it as more of a character study, perhaps your expectations will be better met than mine.

Blog: https://www.confettibookshelf.com/
IG: @confettibookshelf
Profile Image for Lynn Lipinski.
Author 6 books165 followers
July 16, 2018
Beautifully written story that takes many fictional liberties with the events leading up to the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, one of the worst examples of racial violence in the United States. Parker Rhodes acknowledges as much in her afterword. She creates sweeping and empathetic back stories for the two real world protagonists: the black man and white woman whose interaction in an elevator in downtown Tulsa in May 1921 sparked racial rancor into vengefulness and propelled a mob to put the Negroes of Tulsa into their place once and for all. Little is known about either of the real world actors, and her historical reimagining is compelling but also distracted me because of its departure from facts that are known. Still, a terrific read.
Profile Image for Dana.
1,048 reviews74 followers
June 1, 2021
"There's misunderstandings at times. A woman might say no when she means yes. Now isn't that right? You might encourage a man without realizing it."


Do you want to know more about the Tulsa massacre but have a hard time reading history or heavy historical fiction? Well, then I would suggest Magic City to you. In honor of the 100 year anniversary @harperperennial is re-releasing Magic City, a fictionalization of the events that happened to cause the race riot and subsequent horror. It's easily readable and tackles a really impactful moment in America's history that has not properly gotten recognition. 

In this story we see two people who are marginalized in every way, they are both treated as second class citizens even in their own families. On May 31st, they both flee their homes and end up on a collision course that changes Tulsa forever. When a misunderstanding leads to Joe Samuel being accused of raping Mary Keane, there is nothing she can do to rectify the situation. Joe, is a young kid obsessed with Houdini and living in the shadow of his brother's death, we see is precociousness and how his father tried and failed to empart to him that while they were successful Black Americans, one generation away from slavery made life as a black man in Tulsa dangerous. Mary  was raped by a white farm hand that morning using her as a chess piece to get ahold of her father's farm, learns that her word as a woman means nothing in the world. Not only would she not get justice for herself, but she would unknowingly condemn Joe and every black man in the city.

We see the witch hunt go out of control and the unbelievable brutality of "white justice" in the 1920s. You will empathize with both of these ill-fated individuals for the actions that led to the worst moments in their lives and you will be outraged at the blind injustice. It's important to remember these moments in history so we are not doomed to repeat them.

Thanks to Harper Perennial for a copy of this novel. All opinions above are my own.
Profile Image for Robert.
342 reviews
December 12, 2016
An important and eerily relevant book, 'Magic City' recreates the buildup and immediate aftermath of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which saw a mob of whites methodically burn and destroy one of the nation's most affluent black neighborhoods. It was a disgraceful time in this country's history, a bloody crescendo of the post-reconstruction era. One of the key themes of the book is that racial tension can build into a powder keg - all it takes is a spark for the whole thing to go off. Let's hope things aren't heading in that direction today.
Profile Image for Alexandra.
527 reviews19 followers
May 6, 2022
I haven’t disliked a book this much in a while. I’m at a loss here. I don’t understand why this has such a wildly high rating. The Tulsa riots are absolutely a neglected topic that deserve stories, but Greenwood didn’t deserve whatever this is. I’m glad it led me to read more about it - to essentially get the “real story” - but I … I mean, I hated this.

The writing was just bad. I don’t know how else to put it. Here is an example of the dialogue:

“Mary! Oh Mary. Can I get you some toast, Mary? Mary, would you like some milk? Mary, oh Mary. Mary, I’ll take care of you, Mary.”

Repeat ad nauseam with every character - it was bizarre; who talks like that? Who repeats the name of the people they’re retaking to over and over and over?

Every single character was a stick caricature with no depth at all. Allen relates to the plight of Black Americans because he’s albino? That’s insulting beyond belief.

A local white Sheriff is deeply concerned with justice in a department where everyone else is in the Klan, and WHY he is so enlightened is never explored, so it makes no sense.

There is an extremely graphic rape scene that is written with the same vibes as a Harlequin romance scene, and some forty pages after a brutal rape, Mary Keane is tossed into a potential love story with a character we/she just met.

There are side plots involving the War (WWI) that serve as massive crude trauma dumps with no reckoning or resolution following. There are actually FREQUENT long narratives of trauma that seem to exist just to be ghoulish with no intricate connection to the story.

Joe is obsessed with Houdini in a rambling way that doesn’t connect because it isn’t fleshed out. The magical realism suddenly sprinkled into this story is garish and clumsy and weird and detracts from the seriousness of what happened.

This whole thing is just a mess. It’s a three ring circus of shallow inserts, cringe dialogue, and characterization so poor that none of the motivations of any characters make sense - the acts of “heroism” from the white characters don’t make any contextual sense because the reasons behind why they’ve managed to break the mold of the horrific raciest structure they’ve been raised in are never discussed, and failing to address that they’d have had to overcome this is disingenuous and reinforces a myth that some people are just naturally pure and immune to the very prevalent ills of social conditioning.

The Black characters are done a disservice because most of them exist just to die in brutal and graphic ways after spouting off exposition. The choice to sort of give a “both sides” - Joe (Black) and Mary (white) sides of this is just alarming considering it allows white people to feel comfortable and any story revolving around this should make white people SQUIRM with discomfort.

There were a few good sentiments in this, but the overall impact of the book is so weak. I don’t understand what Jewell Parker Rhodes wanted to accomplish here - why not just write a nonfiction account of the Massacre? That’s the treatment this moment in history deserves.

Read literally anything else on race relations. Read Angie Thomas, read Britt Bennet, read Toni Morrison (she captures the violence of racism in America without making it cartoonish), read Alice Walker - don’t read this.

Profile Image for Tracey Cornwell.
55 reviews
September 15, 2018
Fictional account of "the only U.S. city bombed from the air." An almost eighteen year old black man falsely accused of raping a white female elevator operator is the catalyst that triggers a race riot including the KKK, National Guard and residents of Deep Greenwood, a thriving African American community in 1920s Tulsa, OK. Although not without flaw it vividly captures life and attitudes at that time of both urban and rural living whites, as well as African Americans. A dichotomy within a dichotomy takes the reader on a journey few of us have experienced as a misread event leads to the destruction of an entire community.
Profile Image for Kaytee Cobb.
1,852 reviews363 followers
May 1, 2021
This book is being re-issued, which is how it landed on my radar. I wanted it to be the ownvoices replacement for Dreamland Burning, but it was much darker and had far more sex than that one, so it can't slide quite into that spot. But I did really like it, even though one white character has quite a bit of white saviorism on her shoulders.
Profile Image for Paula.
1,096 reviews11 followers
November 7, 2014
This was a story based on true events that happened in the 1920's. It shows how hateful people can be.

Mary is a white woman whose mother died when she was young. She takes care of her father and brother on their farm as well as working as an elevator operator in a business office in town.

Joe is a likeable young black man, soon to turn 18 years old. He comes from a prominent black family in Greenwood, the black community. He prefers to shine shoes instead of going into the banking business with his father.

Mary is trying to forget something brutal that happened at the farm and thinks going to work will help. Joe decides to ride the elevator that day instead of taking the stairs like he's supposed to. As Mary takes the elevator to the top floor, the people below hear her scream. When the elevator comes back down, Joe runs away. He is accused of raping Mary, thus starts the riots of Tulsa.

Well written and interesting book.
Profile Image for Liza Barrett.
106 reviews1 follower
September 9, 2021
Didn’t love it - was hoping it would be more about the Tulsa Massacre but it was more about the main characters and less about the event.
May 22, 2021
This is an event in American history I was not familiar with until recent years. This novel, originally published in 1997, has been republished to mark this milestone. The author has written a fictional account of the event with characters loosely based on the real life people at the heart of the crisis. After doing some online reading, I found it interesting that a lot of the facts regarding the massacre are unknown, such as what really happened between a white girl and a black man in an elevator, who fired the first shot and how many actually died. The novel's plot shows how a cruel assumption sparked a flame and turned it into a raging wildfire, costing many their homes, their jobs and even their lives. The news, police, and local governments suppressed the reporting of this event until it was almost forgotten, and yet, it is one of the deadliest riots in American history with Tulsa being fired upon from the air. Afterwards, almost 6000 Black Tulsans were rounded up and held under armed guards for several days. I thought the author did a great job bringing this event to life. 

I received a gifted copy of this book from Harper Perennial to review.
Profile Image for Noah.
116 reviews
April 30, 2022

This book has so few reviews so I want to type one out to give a perspective I have not seen represented when talking about this book.

For starters, this book gets two stars, partially because it was such an early acknowledgement for the tragedies of Tulsa.

That being said, I hate this book. I really do. I got about 1/3 of the way through and I cannot stand another minute.

For starters, in the opening chapters, sex permeates every scene. A scene where a black child is being perused by a group of white men- why not interject this scene by describing how nervous swear roles down his genitals (with descriptive language)? A rape scene- why not describe it in a way that a romance author might describe the climactic sex scene (Yes, a rape scene should make the reader uncomfortable, but it felt like the scene wanted to arouse the reader at times)?

And then once the events occur that serve as the fictional retelling of the alleged elevator assault, there are so many white characters defending or having faith in the humanity of the Dick Rowland counterpart. Tulsa in 1921 would not have been so lenient. It felt unrealistic. And felt it was going to heavily play into a white savior narrative.

When reading other reviews of this book, I feel I haven’t seen these point brought up. But they feel important. Do not recommend.
Profile Image for Kelle.
174 reviews12 followers
January 14, 2022
This book had a lot of moving parts as it developed a fictional account of the factual event of the Tulsa Race Massacre. A little “out there” at times with the magic and psychic themes, but it kept my interest all the way to the end.
Profile Image for Lee.
650 reviews4 followers
June 7, 2021
At first I was disappointed that this was a fictional account of the black shoeshine man and the white elevator woman who sparked off this massacre. This turned into a very satisfying read, showing the struggle of the black population along with showing some very good white people. The book also illustrated how a misunderstanding can quickly turn into a horrendous event. This book is way more fiction than history, but a very true read:
Profile Image for Erika Baughn.
204 reviews2 followers
March 30, 2022
First off.. this is a MUST read especially if you are from Tulsa like I am! The book had my all in every emotion possible I believe. What happened in 1921 is sickening and a disgrace. Hoping some day we can be Magic City again!!
Profile Image for Addie BookCrazyBlogger.
1,191 reviews35 followers
May 9, 2021
In Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, Joe Samuels is a banker’s son and shoeshiner by choice, determined to make it as the next Houdini. He’s mourning his older brother Henry who died in the war and having strange, almost prophetic-like dreams. He lives in Greenwood, an all-black, prosperous town in the middle of white Tulsa. Mary Keane is a poor white woman living on a farm in Tulsa with her bitter father and her younger brother who lost a leg in WWI. She works part-time as an elevator operator and when she’s raped by her father’s farmhand, Mary loses what dignity she had left. These two cross paths when Joe takes an elevator ride with Mary, in full-view of Klansmen and Mary’s composure from her earlier rape, breaks. Seeking an easy target, they go after Joe. What will follow is a fictional account of a documented attempt at racial genocide in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as Klansmen burn down Greenwood-otherwise known as the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. My fellow white women, we need to talk. Actually, to be more accurate, we need to take a hard look at our history with Black men and women and we need to finally be honest. White women have weaponized their tears and femininity against Black people since the beginning, galvanizing white men into violence. The massacre is unknown because white people have demanded it to be that way. History books don’t focus on Black history, especially in the South and I will include my home state of Missouri in that. This book felt similar to The Water Dancer, because it used magical realism to explain the riot and it was honestly a brilliant decision. This book should be read as a reminder of whites atrocities committed against Black people for the sheer “crime” of existing.
Profile Image for Morgan Marie.
424 reviews5 followers
April 13, 2021
“Recent social justice protests have sparked a new awakening to right historical and contemporary wrongs. George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, was a watershed moment recognizing systemic racism and how since the dawn of slavery, brutality continues to oppress Black lives” (“Author’s Note”).

Thank you @harperperennial for this gifted copy in exchange for an honest review! 📚 💕

The original book was published in 1997, and it has been reissued into this new edition with its publication date on May 4, 2021 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in Oklahoma. As discussed in the author’s note, the Tulsa Race Massacre is not an event that is often discussed or taught in history classes. I personally have not heard about it until this book.

This book is set in 1921, and it is sickening that the narrative of a Black man being accused of a crime he didn’t commit, being targeted and profiled, and/or being murdered ever happened. And it is enraging that it is still going on today, with the most recent event of Daunte Wright being murdered by a police officer.

This is not an easy read, but I think it is necessary. It tells the fictional story, while including factual information about the Tulsa Race Massacre, of a Black man being wrongfully accused of rape, just because the color of his skin. It is eerily relevant to today’s world and it tells a story that is told far too often, one that should have never been/ never be told at all.

Jewell Parker Rhodes tells the stories of Joe Samuels & Mary Keane in Tulsa during the 1920s.

Joe Samuels is a young, Black man who shines shoes for a living, with dreams of becoming a famous magician. Mary Keane is a motherless, young, white woman who works in the city’s elevators. Joe & Mary do not know each other, and their paths have never crossed until one day they are alone in an elevator. Remembering a horrific event that occurred earlier in the morning, Mary begins to scream. Joe flees, and the white folk in town assume he raped her. Despite Mary’s insistences that Joe did not touch her, the white men form a mob to find and murder Joe.
Profile Image for Hillary Erin.
105 reviews21 followers
July 14, 2021
I really enjoyed reading this hidden gem that was originally released in 1998! It was a quick, face-paced novel that takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Magic City is about the events that take place leading up to the Tulsa riots. A magician, Joe, who loves Houdini, is accused of rape when a white woman screams in the elevator he is on. It was just him and the woman in the elevator so of course, they automatically arrested him and throw him in jail. The white woman, Mary, feels terrible about what happened because she knows he is innocent and is trying to help Joe and his family.

The book switches from Joe’s perspective to Mary’s - which kept me hooked. Short chapters, intriguing and strong-willed characters, the connection between the characters, the hidden secrets that come to light, the magic 🪄 and the constant action is what kept me hooked on every page.

I wish the ending had more closure (don’t know if this is a spoiler or not) but I needed and wanted more of the story and wish there was a sequel!

I highly recommend you read Magic City. Growing up, I had no idea about the Tulsa riots, of course we never learned about it in school so reading this book sparked my interest in learning more about what happened.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Liza.
268 reviews
June 29, 2015
The amount of hatred at the time is horrible. Joe, a black shoe shiner, gets in a whites only elevator to comfort the white female operator. To him she looked distraught and he wanted to put a smile on her face. Unbeknownst to him, she had just been raped by her fathers helper. At some point during this elevator ride, she screams and faints. Joe, knowing what this looks like, runs as soon as the elevator door opens. This is the beginning of the end of a whole town of people.

The scream of one white woman (and the jail-breaking black man who had done nothing), set off the burning of a very prosperous Negro community. In the search of one man to lynch instead of send to trial for which would have probably still ended in a lynching, the National Guard is called in. Everything was burned, people were killed, robbed.

Profile Image for Norman Hammon.
17 reviews
September 7, 2020
This was one of the most engaging of reads! The author quickly and completely immerses the reader in the world and reality of Greenwood, as a town with a city that is early 20th Century Tulsa. While the author took some historic liberties, the feel and essence of the book are moving and introspective. Concluding with the horrific tragedy of the Race Massacre leaves the reader as desolated as the one-time citizens of this prosperous community. In retrospect, one has to imagine if the massacre had not occurred, what would have been the direction of both Greenwood and the Tulsa communities? One has a real sense of loss, not just for the suffering of Greenwood citizens but of future opportunities for everyone.

As a reader, writer and Tulsa expatriate I highly, highly recommend this book.
Profile Image for Georgia.
367 reviews54 followers
January 4, 2022
CW: rape, grief

Magic City recounts one of the darkest periods in American history, when a town full of black citizens was burned to the ground in 1921. The Tulsa Massacre is not a widely known event, and I'm grateful that this book brings this event to light. Rhodes provides a personal look at the two people with whom this situation began and how it quickly spread to affect the rest of the city. This book was beautifully crafted. One criticism I have is that this book only takes place over the course of a day or two. Personally, it felt hard to believe that all of the events that happened happened in one. I wish the backstories of the characters possibly took place on a different day. The story also lulled in some areas and was slow, but those sections are balanced by the quicker paces actions scenes. Overall, a beautiful and amazing story.
Profile Image for Donne.
1,130 reviews5 followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
January 4, 2023
DNF - This was hard to read and not because the underlying story isn’t a good one – it is. While I’m well aware of the story of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 that destroyed the Greenwood section of Tulsa, which was commonly known as the “Black Wall Street”, I’ve read better accounts of it and how it happened, better stories that were hard to put down. I suppose that if I had continued to read on, the story may have gotten better or the characters more likeable, but, once again, I’ve read better stories.
68 reviews
December 10, 2009
powerful story -- two people divided by race but forever joined by fate; white woman raped and black man accused; the event which all but erased (burned to the ground) Greenwood, Oklahoma (the Black Wall Street of its time) from the map; Tulsa still stands but Greenwood was never the same. The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 still stands as a tragedy of monumental proportions and the history of it has been ignored since the 20's. Sad but true.
952 reviews3 followers
July 23, 2019
Despite living in Oklahoma all my life I know very little about Black Wall Street and the Tulsa Race Riots. I knew they existed, but beyond that not much. This brought history to life, with the poor white girl and the wealthy black boy who end up in an elevator together and cause a riot. The characters aren't based on the real people, but the outcome is the same in the novel as it was in real life. This wasn't even 100 years ago! This would be a great book to do for a statewide read in 2021.
21 reviews
July 31, 2008
This is one of those buried treasures. No one's heard of it, but it's a great read, and it's centered around a historical event no one knows about: the Tulsa, OK race riots in the 1920s. I first read it in college because the author came to Alma, but it's one of my favorite books. I've loaned it to several students, and they've all loved it, too.
Profile Image for Chris.
21 reviews2 followers
March 23, 2010
A fictional spin on the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots. Ms. Rhodes surely can write to ignite the sparks of hatred and fuel them into a fire of emotion. It made me wonder why we never hear about the race riots which killed over 300 people (mostly black). This is a sweeping tale that will not only tug at your heart, but nearly break it in two.
6 reviews1 follower
February 1, 2009
I had no intention of reading all night when I picked up this book, but I could not put it down. I also never expected to find the ghost of Harry Houdini speaking within the book, a voice that--along with this story of courage--haunts me still.
Profile Image for Kelley.
183 reviews
October 26, 2011
What a fantastic fictitious account of one of the ugliest chapters of Tulsa history. Parker Rhodes has a Toni Morrison style with her magical realism. I recommend this book to those who enjoy historical fiction or would like a or some perspective on the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.
April 28, 2020
Character development in this book was SO good. I read it in 3 days while working out on my treadmill. Good book for getting a feel for the Tulsa Race Massacre.
Profile Image for Mrs. VanHorn.
197 reviews
June 9, 2020
The Tulsa riots recreated with such emotional realism I couldn’t put it down. Thank you Jewell Parker Rhodes for writing this book!
Displaying 1 - 30 of 58 reviews

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