Thursday, March 1, 2012

Healing a wounded nation one narrative at a time (Books - Glow by Jessica Maria Tuccelli)

There are those who say that America is unnecessarily obsessed with race, but most who make that claim would like to change that conversation. America was founded by dominating one race in order to seize their land and by dominating a second in order to support commerce. Both native Americans and those whom Americans enslaved were subjugated out of a sense of entitlement. Whites assumed for centuries that their skin color was favored by their gods and, because they were willing to dominate through violence, that what they captured was theirs to keep. America is built on a legacy of hubris and its consequences can still be felt. For a century following slavery, society was legally bifurcated so that education, transportation, partaking of daily commerce, and marriage were separate for white people and people of color. It seems disingenuous to claim, after those laws were changed under protest a few decades ago, that people of color in America should now feel the same as whites since they supposedly have the same opportunities. Even if they had the same opportunities, history doesn't simply evaporate.

The national conversation about race is necessary and will be ongoing, but often it is confined to abstract concepts such as racism or economic opportunity, which sanitizes the subject by holding it at a distance. It is the stories of individual people that transcends abstraction and allows the circumstances of one individual person to touch another. That is what Jessica Maria Tuccelli has accomplished beautifully with her soon-to-be-released debut novel Glow, published by Viking. Thank you Penguin USA for a copy.

In Glow, Mia, an anti-racism activist living in 1940s Washington D.C., is threatened with violence because of her work and because her husband Obidiah, a man of color, refused to serve in the army.
Barely a week ago, the police hauled him off. His draft number called, he boldly, purposely refused to enlist. For what job? Mess man? Slop man? Cook? He could shoot a pea off a squirrel's head. He had a law degree. He wasn't going to fight for freedom in another country when he didn't have it at home.
In a panic, Mia she sends her daughter Ella home to her folks by bus, but along the way, Ella is attacked and left for dead. Ella awakens in the house of Willie Mae Cotton in Southern Appalachia. Born as a slave nearly 100 years earlier, Willie Mae had been married to an ancestor of Ella's. As Ella recovers from her injuries, she learns, via some kind of magic, of her forbears, who were of mixed Cherokee, White, and African-American descent.

Tuccelli's bio reveals that she trekked around northeastern Georgia over several years, becoming acquainted with its history and folklore. The book has the feeling of being born out of individual narrative histories of the people she met. Its structure reaches back over six generations and reveals how myriad cultures and races becoming reliant upon one another in the realms of work and love gave birth to the modern American community. Most American communities are not as homogeneous and most Americans not as independent as they would like to pretend. This interdependence means that individual acts of hatred create legacies of deep hurt, as this novel reveals.

Tuccelli's first novel is ambitious and reaching. Occasionally her reach shows. The dialogue sports some obvious cliches (a young, impetuous girl replies "Nome" to a scolding parent in a way that too obviously echoes Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) and some formulaic tropes that sound like the emotional shortcuts a Hollywood movie might take: She said, I love you E.F. McGee. I love you to the moon and back.

The early pages of Glow sometimes reveal their exposition a little obviously. The characters spout their factual history but lack the quirks that would make them into three-dimensional human beings, as though Tuccelli just couldn't wait to get through the set-up to show us all the juicy ghost stories and cultural lore that was the subject of her research. When firmly embedded in the more distant past, her characters become more detailed and idiosyncratic and her talent for writing in the varied first-person voices of a broad cast of multiple races is patent.

In addition the early pages of the story offer many references to religious belief, bible passages, and manifestations of ghostly spirits and magical healing that this reader found oppressive. This may please some, but I find this country riddled with a kind of spiritual tyranny, a demand that private beliefs litter the public sphere in any and all contexts. However, the various magical or spiritual happenings that were dwelt upon in the early pages of Glow were well justified, given how ubiquitous they are in the cultures Tuccelli writes about. As the novel progresses, they become better integrated into the overall narrative.

Tuccelli's first-person narratives, particularly from Willie Mae's generation back, are the real meat of this novel. Here the writing is swift-moving and captivating. Tuccelli interleaves Ella's look back at the descendants of Solomon Bounds (b. 1789) with documents such as speeches to Congress, instructions to Census takers, and surveys made by the army regarding integration, placing the individual histories in the context of greater American history. Once experiencing the book in its entirety, I read Ella as standing-in for an America wounded by the legacy of racism. Ella's healing by delving into personal history thus becomes a metaphor for a way we can all heal our wounded society by understanding our past, a healing that it is evident Tuccelli wishes for us all. It is in her creation of this potent symbol that Tuccelli's ambition in this novel really pays off.

There is an extensive reading tour throughout the U.S. - check the schedule. Perhaps Tuccelli will be reading and signing copies of Glow near you.

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