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The Magic Kingdom

Review

The Magic Kingdom

With THE MAGIC KINGDOM, noted writer Russell Banks has composed an amalgam of fiction and fact centered on a tiny settlement of an obscure religious sect in Narcoossee, a region that one day would become a fantasy land destination for millions of Americans.

"Readers will be held in thrall by the manner in which Banks delivers this historic saga, with enough real-life details to make it believable and enough imagination to keep it afloat as a powerful, well-spun yarn."

Banks has styled himself here as the discoverer of a collection of 50-year-old tape recordings dictated by the late Harley Mann in his 90s when he unfolds his memoir. Transcribing them, the story is laid open, of how Harley and his mother and brothers came to live in a Shaker community in central Florida in the early 20th century, led there by family crises and guided gently, if distantly, by the group’s sternly mysterious leader, Elder John. There, the boy --- a smart and often outspoken preteen observer --- will learn the tenets of the sect: hard work, celibacy and strict separation of the sexes.

Toiling in the agricultural lands to sustain the group, Harley becomes the community’s beekeeper and meets Sadie Pratt, a few years his senior who is afflicted with tuberculosis, which requires her periodic absence from the cult for extended stays in a nearby sanitorium. His curiosity about her evokes her interest, and the two develop an unusual bond. His devotion to her will lead him through a morass of complex moral questions and, eventually, a brush with local law enforcement, trapped by his own felt need for complete honesty --- even as that seems to be at odds with the wishes of Elder John and his supporters.

Harley’s memories are as extensive as they are fascinating, allowing Banks, a many-times lauded American novelist, to weave a tangled web of classic themes --- a boy coming of age in a confusing, highly stratified society, and a religion that may be collapsing under the weight of its hidden perfidies. Readers will learn of the ideals and inner realities of the Shaker creed and get a thorough grounding in the early growth to prominence of the book’s geographical setting. The title, of course, references the eventual use of the land where Harley finds his own brand of “magic” in a religious “kingdom” built largely (and much like the one to come) on the dynamic personality of its leader.

Readers will be held in thrall by the manner in which Banks delivers this historic saga, with enough real-life details to make it believable and enough imagination to keep it afloat as a powerful, well-spun yarn.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on December 10, 2022

The Magic Kingdom
by Russell Banks

  • Publication Date: November 8, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0593535154
  • ISBN-13: 9780593535158