Synopses & Reviews
From the author of Big Fish
comes this haunting, tender story that weaves a tragic secret, a mysterious meeting with the Devil, and a family of charming circus freaks recounting the extraordinary adventures of their friend Henry Walker, the Negro Magician.
In the middle of a dusty Southern town, in the middle of the twentieth century, magician Henry Walker entertains crowds at Jeremiah Musgrove's Chinese Circus. Though not the world-famous illusionist he once was, Henry, with his dark skin and green eyes, is still something of a novelty to the patrons who pay a dime to see his show. Most of the patrons, anyway.
As the novel begins, one May night in 1954, Henry is confronted by three menacing white teens, and soon thereafter disappears. With his fate uncertain, his friends from the circus Jenny the Ossified Girl, Rudy the Strong Man, and JJ the Barker piece together what they know of Henry's mysterious and extraordinary life. The result is a spellbinding adventure that begins when ten-year-old Henry meets the devil, who gives him the art of magic and then steals the one thing that means the most to him. As Henry's friends recount the remarkable adventures and incredible heartache that result from this childhood encounter, only one thing seems certain about Henry's life: nothing is as it appears.
Brimming with surprising twists and turns, and peopled with a literal circus of memorable characters, Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician is Daniel Wallace at his finest. As in his beloved debut, Big Fish, Wallace once again conjures a wondrous tale with an emotional punch. This is a story of love and loss, identity and illusion, fate and choice; a story that will capture your heart and your imagination and not let go until the very last page.
"Not until the very end of the book do the characters and plots snap into sharp focus....[Wallace] like any good magician refuses to give away all of his secrets." Los Angeles Times
"[A] readable and quirky off-center confection....It is a story of the fabulous, one that freely mixes the real and the desired in equal parts, so that the reader never knows quite what to believe." Denver Post
"Wallace brings to his role as author wit, a subtle compassion, and an offbeat originality." The Boston Globe
"[A] masterly novel about love and illusion, friendship and sacrifice." Library Journal
"Wallace's fractured fairy tale may strike readers new to the author as somewhat gimmicky; it will appeal to his fan base." Booklist
Brimming with surprising twists and turns, and peopled with a literal circus of memorable characters, this is Wallace at his finest. As in his debut, Big Fish, Wallace once again conjures a wondrous tale with an emotional punch.
It’s 1950 and magician Henry Walker is traveling through the South with Jeremiah Musgrove’s Chinese Circus.Though once a world-famous illusionist, Henry seems to have lost his magic, and when the novel opens he’s in some serious trouble with three angry white teens. With Henry's fate uncertain, his friends from the circus narrate a spellbinding tale of how Henry came by his magic: When he was ten years old Henry met the devil, who gave him the gift—and then stole the one thing that meant the most to him. The result is great adventure and tragedy, enthralling to the last page.
Full of surprising twists and peopled with a literal circus of memorable characters—many of whom narrate Henry’s story—MR. SEBASTIAN AND THE NEGRO MAGICIAN is riveting and accomplished. As Wallace conjures up the warmth of the circus family against the backdrop of the South, he performs some literary magic of his own. Woven into Henry’s poignant, enchanting story are powerful explorations of family, race, and morality.
A wonderful combination of storytelling magic and literary sophistication, MR. SEBASTIAN AND THE NEGRO MAGICIAN is Wallace’s best novel yet.
About the Author
DANIEL WALLACE is the author of Big Fish, Ray in Reverse, and The Watermelon King. His stories have been published in many magazines and anthologies, including the Yale Review, the Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah, Glimmer Train, New Stories from the South, and The Best American Short Stories. His illustrated work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times. He teaches at the University of North Carolina and lives in Chapel Hill.
Reading Group Guide
1. From the Great Depression to racial segregation, Henrys tale is set during a tumultuous period in American history. How did history both propel and stifle his career?
2. Discuss the notion of the “exotic” that Henrys promoters emphasized. Why were audiences more likely to be drawn to him if he played the role of Hindu prince or native of Congo? People used to go to sideshows to see people like Jenny, and people like her used to have a life-a family-with sideshows. But no longer. Why?
3. How was your reading enhanced by the unique structure of this novel, including the tattered Book of Lost Freaks? What variation in the storytelling, if any, did you detect among Henrys friends?
4. Would you have been able to make the same choices Henrys father did if you had been in his situation? Was Hannah better off? Was it immoral for Henrys father to accept money from Tom Hailey in exchange for control over Henrys career?
5. What made Henry the perfect apprentice? In what way did this also lead to his downfall?
6. What is your perception of why Henry survived WWII? How powerful do you believe a person can become through determination or will power, or faith in illusions? Why did his powers “fade”? Why was he not able or willing to save himself from Tarps racist trio?
7. What accounts for Henrys intense attraction to Marianne La Fleur? Why did audiences reject her “trick” of raising from the dead?
8. Who are the contemporary worlds most famous masters of miracles and magic? Who currently are our greatest charlatans? Did the various men Henry thought of as saviors throughout his life actually lead to his doom?
9. Discuss the fine lines that exist between identity and appearance. In what ways is your ancestry evident in your appearance? What illusions must we project in order to succeed? In the end, who was the real Henry Walker?
10. What is your understanding of the scene, narrated by Henrys mother, in which Mr. Sebastian gives Henry a chance to resurrect the woman he loved most?
11. In your opinion, what is the truth behind Henrys belief that he killed Mr. Sebastian? How might his life have been different if he had known Hannah was alive?
12. Revisit James Callahans letter, which opens the novel. Now that you have read Henrys story, do you believe everything Callahan says in the letter? Is it true that Henrys troubles were simply due to bad luck, and that Callahan did nothing wrong?
13. Throughout the book Henry's “family" evolved from the one he was born into, to the father figures who took him in, to the circus community who embraced him. Explore the role and meaning of “family” in Henry's life and in your own.
From one of the most imaginative novelists of his generation comes the tale of Henry Walker, a magician with extraordinary powers, extraordinary heartache, and a lifetime of illusions so remarkable youll not believe your eyes.
Its 1954 when we first meet Henry. Once a world-famous magician, he seems to have lost his touch. As he travels through the South with Jeremiah Musgroves Chinese Circus, his act draws more laughs than awe. Hes a far cry from the spellbinding illusionist he once was, having learned magic from a mysterious gentleman named Mr. Sebastian-surely the disguised devil himself. After inducting ten-year-old Henry into the world of dark arts-blood oath and all-Mr. Sebastian and Henrys beloved sister Hannah suddenly disappear. On these pages you will hear from Henrys circus friends-Jenny, the Ossified Girl; Rudy, the Strongest Man in the Entire World; and JJ, the Barker-who will recount Henrys greatest feats, leading you on one of the greatest adventures ever told, with a stunning revelation at the end that exposes the truth about a master of trickery.
The story of Henrys life is not one to read alone. We hope this guide will serve as a pleasant companion while you and your fellow readers travel with him through an intriguing world of love and loss, mystery and magic.