Jessica Maria Tuccelli’s debut novel, Glow, opens in 1941, with an NAACP activist putting her daughter on a bus out of town to protect her from potential retribution. By the end of the book, only two days have passed, but the intervening pages wander more than a century back in time, alternating narrators who share stories of the exile of the Cherokee, Southern plantation life, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Glow has no real plot, but it offers an enjoyable stroll through the lives of generations of Southerners connected by blood, circumstances, and the land on which they live.
Sticking closely to the conventions of Southern literature, Glow focuses on an area of Georgia where Cherokee and Irish settlers intermingled. Chapters alternate between three narrators, each with their own dialect, sharing their coming-of-age stories. Riddle is a half-Cherokee, pulled out of the isolation of living with his sister in the woods by his love of a preacher’s slave. Willie Mae was born a slave, and the good and bad moments of her life are defined by her masters’ whims. Amelia’s carefree childhood is interrupted as her friendship with a black family pulls her into the 1920s’ boiling racial tensions.
All the voices feel distinct, though the stories involve so many new and overlapping names that it’s fortunate Tuccelli includes a set of family trees at the beginning of the book. There are so many characters with multiple sets of children and interracial relationships that seemingly everyone is related in some fashion.
Tuccelli has a degree in anthropology and spent three summers in northeastern Georgia collecting folklore and ghost stories. She uses this research to pepper her historic fiction with mysticism. The book gets its name from a character with a silver aura that’s never really explained, and characters interact with all manner of ghosts, from dead relatives looking after them to “stuck haints,” tormented spirits unable to move on. With only a few characters able to look into this hidden world, the ghost stories never dominate the novel, but they do add a sense of wonder.
Glow touches on the South’s heaviest issues, but they’re just a backdrop for character studies. The narrators are the ones most willing to challenge conventions, but the book also elicits great sympathy for characters who alternatively act as the protagonists’ friends and enemies, their loyalties divided by their circumstances and personal demons. While only some people can see ghosts, everyone in Glow is haunted by something.