Spanning a hundred years, Jessica Maria Tuccelli’s debut novel, Glow, is a tale of generations and the generational legacy of American race relations. Essentially, it is the story of a mother, Amelia McGee, a woman of mixed Cherokee and Scotch-Irish descent, and her young daughter, Ella. Amelia is a dangerously outspoken pamphleteer for the NAACP in 1941, and fearing for her daughter’s life, she puts Ella on a bus home to Georgia in the middle of the night. But danger finds Ella anyway. Attacked and left for dead on the side of the road, Ella is found and carried home by a former slave, Willie Mae Cotton, who nurses young Ella back to health. Ella slowly comes to better understand her family’s troubled history—which in turn becomes the greater story of a nation and our unseemly relationship to race, especially to “half-breeds” and “mixed-breeds,” African- and Native-Americans alike.
Tuccelli’s ambitions are nothing less than Faulknerian. Sections are boldly marked by particular voices: E.F. McGee, Amelia J. McGee, Willie Mae Cotton, Riddle Young (the novel’s fourth voice, a distant relative of Amelia’s). And each voice is given a soul of its own as Tuccelli patiently makes their connections clear. Peopled by a chorus of voices as varied as they are remarkably rendered, Glow is unflinching in its portrait of slavery, violence, and prejudice.
Peppered throughout are brief blocks of bureaucratic prose taken directly from actual recovered government documents: “from Instructions to Enumerators U.S. Census, 1940 Questionnaire,” “from Instructions to Marshals and Assistant Marshals U.S. Census, 1840 Questionnaire.” The documents serve as enigmatic checkpoints in the evolution of race in America (“Write ‘W’ for white; ‘Neg’ for Negro; ‘In’ for Indian; ‘Jp’ for Japanese…”), and as real-world reminders in a novel chockfull of Beloved-like ghosts.
Toward the end of Glow, Ella and her mother watch a town parade go by on Main Street. Led by a local preacher, local citizens march, “waving flags and holding banners.” The marchers shout: “One God, one language, one flag!” and “One hundred percent American!” The young girl looks up at her mother, and asks, “What does it mean?”
The answer to that could fill a book, and Glow is as daring and complicated and ambitious as the question demands. In fact, the book is something of an anomaly, a genuine page-turner that is also lyrically fearless, structurally challenging, and beautifully composed.