"In the autumn of 1941, Amelia J. McGee, a young woman of Cherokee and Scotch-Irish descent, and an outspoken pamphleteer for the NAACP, hastily sends her daughter, Ella, alone on a bus home to Georgia in the middle of the night--a desperate measure that proves calamitous when the child encounters two drifters and is left for dead on the side of the road. Ella awakens in the homestead of Willie Mae Cotton, a wise root doctor and former slave, and her partner, Mary-Mary Freeborn, tucked deep in the Takatoka Forest. As Ella heals, the secrets of her lineage are revealed. Shot through with Cherokee lore and hoodoo conjuring, Glow transports us from Washington, D.C., on the brink of World War II to the Blue Ridge frontier of 1836, from the parlors of antebellum manses to the plantation kitchens where girls are raised by women who stand in as mothers. As the land with all its promise and turmoil passes from one generation to the next, Ella's ancestral home turns from safe haven to mayhem and back again."
It can seem at times as if humans are very far from the major historical events and eras of times such as the Second World War and America pre-emancipation, and yet when we visit places that were central to events or talk to people who were there, it seems all the closer as we are reminded what havoc people can be capable of. Parallel to this devastating backdrop of America's treatment of Negroes and Native Americans, Jessica Maria Tuccelli also reminds us of the joy that human beings are capable of bringing forth in her debut novel, entitled Glow.
Visiting places like Washington DC and talking to my grandmother reminds me that our history is in fact often very close to us and within terrifying reach. Tuccelli juxtaposes love and fear, marries the realistic with the fantastical, and tallies an immediate sense of danger with descriptions of soaring beauty. Even though aspects of this reminded me of other books I have read - the supernatural elements taking me back to Helen Oyeyemi's The Icarus Girl, and the sense of childish hope destroyed repairing me to works by Joyce Carol Oates and others - this was in no way negative; the author clearly hallmarks her individual style using skilful changes of voice from adult to child and back again, and combining the accessible with the ambitious.
In Glow, some characters are better painted than others, but this is perhaps an inevitable consequence given the sheer numbers of them. The 'glow' of the title is left slightly ambiguous so that readers can colour in the gaps; we are told that the 'glow' refers to the ability to 'see' the souls of the departed, but we are also given the impression that there is more to it than this, without being told exactly what. In a way, it is a shame that Glow is not a longer novel, as more detail is needed in parts and Tuccelli could have easily continued her already strong narrative. The author makes deft use of both Christianity (using Biblical quotations at the beginnings of chapters to remind even the most hardened of atheists of the Bible's lyricism, even if they don't believe in its content) and the occult (by having the souls of the dead haunt their lineage) in a way that adds elegance, depth, and tension.
Even though the racial aspect of the story could have been threaded through the narrative more consistently (in its present form it seems a little awkward - a bit like the novel's title), and even though Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible unites nature, magic and so on with a little more ease, Glow is certainly not without its charms, with its detail and character making it a rich treasure box that can be plundered repeatedly.