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Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli

Published by Viking on March 15, 2012

Ghosts are common characters in horror stories, but only a few writers (Toni Morrison and William Kennedy come to mind) have successfully incorporated ghosts (real or imagined) into literary novels.  Although she isn’t at the level of either of those two fine authors, Jessica Maria Tuccelli deserves credit for having the courage to attempt a literary ghost story.  I give her even more credit for doing it well, although I suspect the novel would have been just as good -- maybe better -- without its supernatural elements.

Glow is more about the evolution of American race relations and the struggle for civil rights than it is about ghosts.  Tuccelli inserts historical documents into the text -- including congressional resolutions and instructions to census takers -- to emphasize how African Americans and Native Americans were differentiated, or discounted, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  That theme carries through in the more personal stories she tells.  Tuccelli might have been a bit too ambitious in addressing such a complex issue during the course of a hundred years, but she ultimately provides a journey worth taking.

The story has an unusual arc, beginning in the first half of the twentieth century, then working its way back through the nineteenth until time begins to move forward again.  The first quarter of the novel follows two main characters.  In 1924, Amelia J. McGee, the nine-year-old daughter of a half-Cherokee mother and Irish-Scottish father, uncharacteristically defies her parents and enters the woods alone, where she encounters the ghost of a black girl named Lovelady Belle Young.

Amelia’s story alternates with that Ella (E.F.) McGee, who, as a little girl in 1941, gets sidetracked at the end of a bus trip and ends up with Willie Mae and Mary-Mary, two women who have their own experiences with the spirit world.  Ella has her own encounter with a ghost -- one that is decidedly less friendly than Lovelady -- while staying with Willie Mae.

Glow then begins to move back in time.  Born into slavery in 1845, Willie Mae Cotton’s head begins to glow shortly after she survives a serious illness, just after she is separated from her mother and given to a new master.  Her story forms the next section of the novel, featuring some of the most intense scenes in a book that is filled with powerful images.

This is followed by the novel’s weakest section, one that reaches back to 1834 to tell the story of Riddle Young, who raises his sister Emmaline after their father’s death, using Shakespeare’s plays as bedtime stories.  This section of the novel provides an interesting look at the ancestry of characters who appear in earlier (and later) sections, but I’m not sure it adds anything of value to the narrative.

Riddle’s voice strives to be Shakespearean, or at least eloquent.  It is the only unconvincing voice in the novel, although it’s fun to read.  The varied dialog is otherwise well tuned to each character.  From the educated to the pompous, across racial divides and different eras, each character speaks in a unique voice.

Time moves forward again as we return to Willie Mae, pass through the Civil War, and are reintroduced to Lovelady, whose brief section is written in a completely different style, almost a form of free verse.  Racial violence is in full force as the story winds its way back to young Amelia and then to young Ella.  By that time, however, it is difficult to reconnect with those characters (particularly Ella) who have been absent from the text for so long, exposing the most serious drawback in the novel’s structure.

There is much to praise in Glow, beginning with the high quality prose.  Given the difficulties the characters endure, I am impressed by the sense of optimism that runs through the narrative.  Tuccelli mixes humor with tragedy, tosses a few romances into the mix (including one that is quite unconventional), creates compelling moments of drama, and manages to link all the stories together in a way that justifies the novel’s unusual structure.

Still, Glow is not without flaws.  The story wraps up a little too neatly, too coincidentally, in the end (although maybe when ghosts get involved there are no coincidences), and some of the characters -- particularly a biplane pilot and his wing-walking sister, a suffragette who is campaigning for Fighting Bob La Follette’s Progressive Party in the 1924 presidential election -- seem out of place and underdeveloped.  A scene that might have been more at home in a conventional ghost story didn’t work for me, and I’m not at all sure what Willie Mae’s glowing scalp adds to the story.

Although not entirely successful, Glow is a novel of big ideas, strong characters, and vivid images.  I easily liked it enough to recommend it, and I look forward to Tuccelli’s next effort.


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