*I received this book from the publisher Viking in exchange for an honest review.
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 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. (Blurb, cover jacket Glow)
Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli is reminiscent of Edward P. Jones, The Known World, in that it is a patchwork of the lives of many that intertwine in ways both obvious and surprising. Ella, also known in the novel as E.F. McGee, really acts as a plot device, pulling the stories of the past from Mary-Mary and Willie Mae and evoking haints that expand the stories of the characters introduced along the way.
For that reason, the blurb above is truthful but limiting, as the novel spans time, place, and generations, eventually making its rounds of a large and complex family tree provided in the opening pages. E.F. McGee’s narrative is woven throughout and reveals details about the other narrators that make for a fuller, richer story, but it doesn’t necessarily elucidate Ella’s own character or that of her mother, Amelia. Instead, there is a whole cast of characters, some Native American, others slaves, others white men who tangle these lines when and where they choose, and the narrative changes as a different character picks up a chapter, allowing for earlier stories to gradually come together and make up a whole.
Glow is beautifully written, and particularly since this is a debut novel, the research, dialogue and plot are incredibly well delivered. At times, though, Tuccelli seems to become even more conscious of the language she uses, which results in some clunky metaphors and similes:
Her hair is wild. It is a flock of muddy goats flowing down a mountainside.
This sort of description is not particularly evocative of the image Tuccelli is trying to relate. This too:
The cascade gurgled like a newborn baby while damselflies hovered above and blue skinks slithered under prism-flecked stones.
Above, the sky is filled with bright pinpricks where the heavens show through. I like to think they are God’s windows and the twinkling is angels covered in glossy feathers walking by and looking in.
After a while, these descriptions clutter the true beauty of this story: the characters.
Mary-Mary and Willie Mae are endearing. Willie Mae has an aura about her, one that Mary-Mary immediately sees when Willie Mae uncovers her head one day to wash her hair. Both slaves as young girls, the two grow up together and love one another, eventually living together like an old married couple after enduring years of hardship as slaves. When they find E.F. McGee unconscious with her dog Brando, they take her in and nurse her to health, and while recovering, Ella asks, “Willie Mae, why do you glow?” And Willie Mae answers:
“Do I still glow?” she says, with a funny sadness in her voice. “That nice to know,” she says. “It ain’t something I can explain, but it’s there, protective and fierce – like mother love for a child.”
And mother love is central to the novel, as the mothers again and again defy expectations of women in the South during their respective time frames. However, these are also women of color – Cherokee and slave – women who carry the traditions, stories, and superstitions of their ancestors, and as one character says about his mother,
With her death had come the most disturbing sound to befall my ears: nay, not my father’s racking sobs, but the hardened clumps of clay rapping against her coffin as he shoveled her and her stories away.
Glow is a really impressive novel, one that will mystify at the same time it enlightens. By encompassing all these lives and their individual stories, Tuccelli gives voice to not only the cruelty of the South and its history but also to the mystery and elusiveness it retains.
Have you read Glow? I think it would be a really excellent book club novel because it is so sprawling and covers so much territory.