THE MAGNETIC GIRL. By Jessica Handler. Hub City Press. 280 pages. $27.
The opening pages of "The Magnetic Girl" tingle like a live wire. Our narrator, 14-year-old Lulu Hurst, has a compelling and clear voice that captivates from the start, fittingly, as she recounts the incidents and habits that convince her that she poses a secret magic she calls “captivation.” She can stare down a fox, stopping it in its tracks; she entrances her Sunday school teacher and lures buttons and hairpins that magically find their way to her. Likewise, author Jessica Handler, heretofore a memoir and nonfiction writer, lures the reader in with magnetic prose, demonstrating her command of fiction.
Lulu and her family live in a small Georgia town, “a sunk-in place” on a dead-end road; it’s 1883, the post-war rural South is bleak and impoverished, and Lulu is desperate to break free. Thanks to a nearby lightning strike and her father’s conniving showmanship — he asserts Lulu acquired electrical powers from the storm, transforming her into “The Magnetic Girl” — her captivation powers end up being that ticket out.
Lulu channels the “Power of Mesmeric Influence” (the title of a book that captivates her) to catapult men from chairs, among other stage tricks, and her performance becomes a best-selling attraction in opera houses and venues from Massachusetts to Tennessee.
The story that unfolds is both a young woman’s coming of age tale and a family saga shrouded by mysterious backstory that slowly (although not always clearly) comes to light. Driving it all are the opposing forces of deception and honesty — the push-and-pull between what we reveal and what we withhold.
Lulu understands that her carny success as the Magnetic Girl is mostly smoke and mirrors, yet who among us doesn’t crave applause and want to believe we are gifted, that we wield our own special powers? But Lulu also knows the power of shame as she harbors her deepest secret of all: her belief that she is to blame for her beloved baby brother Leo’s developmental disabilities. Lulu is six when Leo is born. “His little neck is like a green branch, Lulu, but his head is heavy, so we have to hold him up,” her mother warns, yet young Lulu picks him up when no one is looking and to her horror, Leo slips out of her hands and falls hard.
From this point on, “Leo and I grew into opposites,” Lulu says — her adolescent body growing tall and gawky, much to her mother’s dismay. “She’d wet her hands and make a hailstorm of little hits on top of my head, trying to get my thick hair to lie flat and smooth. She tugged at my sleeves and my skirt, covering what my dresses could no longer hide.” Meanwhile Leo’s delicate body stayed small and floppy, his walk tentative. Her brother was “broken” (we come to realize, from infantile fever, not being dropped), and driven by secret guilt, Lulu sets out to fix him, or at least earn enough income for her family to make things right.
Inspired by the true story of “The Georgia Wonder,” an actual Lulu Hurst who performed “tests” of her powers across the South from 1883 to 1885, Handler gives us electrifying historical fiction that poses questions about how we reconcile our inheritance, how we live into our gifts or resist the force of limitations and imposed expectations. Handler’s prose is fluid and her characters beautifully drawn, especially Lulu and her father, the gambling huckster Will Hurst.
The second chapter is the only one not narrated by Lulu, a third-person flashback to Will Hurst’s time in the war, with hints of his own mother’s dabbling in mesmeric influence. This abrupt switch in voice so early on, right after the reader is initially drawn-in by Lulu, is jarring: once I finished the book, I went back to make sense of the chapter. That, and the fact that I could never quite envision the mechanics of Lulu’s chair-catapulting stage tricks, despite repeated descriptions, were the only points that tripped this reader up.
On the whole, "The Magnetic Girl" is a fully charged read, and another strong offering by Spartanburg’s Hub City Press. Lulu is a delightfully indelible character, a girl whose power might not derive from mesmerism but from more fundamental forces: love and shame, hope and regret. In the end, she cannot “fix” her brother, but she harnesses the power to follow a path that feels true to herself.