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Magic Words, a Review

I like reading important stories. I like reading well-written stories even more. I even hope that 3 Through History ( is such a tale. When both needs are satisfied in one reading experience, I like to make it clear to as many people as possible that I have found a gem, a book that will live with the reader as a work of art and as a collection of memorable scenes and unforgettable characters.
Such a book it Magic Words, a meticulously researched historical novel by Gerald Kolpan (2012, Pegasus). The title is a complex play on words. By themselves, the magic refers to two magicians, an older and a much younger brother, who both used the same stage name and between whom there was bad blood boiling, both personal and professional, that extended to affairs of heart and bed, finally resulting in the murder that opens and closes the book. The “words” belonged to the protagonist and major character, Julius Meyer, whose rare gift for languages earned him the title of Speaker of the Ponca Indians, that tribe that was decimated in the Trail of Tears exile. As a phrase, the title captures the power that words, language,  and books have always had for Jews, and when this particular Jew, Julius, finds the Ponca, the phrase is transformed into a kind of prayer.
Kolpan sets himself a prodigious task. The mystery of the murder at the beginning is only solved at the end, and then in such a way that the reader is almost banging the book against the nightstand, demanding that three new questions be answered. So if this were a mere whodunit, it would stand up well. If it were the improbable story of the intrigue between two brothers, several assistants, and other figures of nineteenth-century hocus-pocus and illusion, the reader would be well-rewarded. But this narration informs us of a timeless revelation into what it means to be Jewish, discovered only by Julius One-Tongue Meyer after years of living at once an “egg-eater” and a Ponca: “Sometimes,  I imagine the Ponca are this tribe that was lost to me all that time ago – my people returned from wandering,” Julius tells his betrothed. Our wandering brings us closer to ourselves, if only we can recognize the lost tribesman from whom we were separated, literally or figuratively, so long ago.

About Ronald FIschman

I am a public school teacher who had a prior career as a cantor, opera singer, and composer. My greatest notoriety comes from my settings of Dylan Thomas's "Vision and Prayer" and Percy Byssshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" for singers and large instrumental ensemble. My first poetry collection, "Generations," honors the roles of son, husband, and father, and is available at

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