Tessa’s Heart: A Texas Story
by Jackie Lewis
Flying Horse on Fire Books

"At first, I thought it was my imagination but as I got closer to the mirror there seemed to be light coming from it."

This character-driven coming-of-age story set in 1950s Yoakum, Texas, centers around three generations of females living in the same house. The main character, Tessa Carter, lives with her beautiful, free-spirited mother, Virginia, and her maternal grandmother, Bernice—a spiteful woman with a fittingly vicious dog. "Grandma couldn't tolerate her arms to be empty, so she kept Queen Victoria, a small mop-headed dog, also with bulging eyes, on her right arm." The house's inhabitants are constant sources of irritation to each other, making for a volatile environment. Bernice despises her daughter's promiscuous lifestyle and never misses an opportunity to criticize her. Tessa, an unusual child who was late in beginning to talk, also finds herself on the receiving end of Bernice's biting verbiage. When Tessa uses body movements to help her concentrate on her speech, her grandmother criticizes her for not standing still. Tessa is also affected by the never-ending battles between her mother and grandmother. "When Grandma brought up Mom's being divorced, as she always did, it made me feel something was wrong with me. I didn't know any other children with divorced parents, and it was like there was a crack right down my middle and I was in two halves."

Lewis has created a memorable protagonist in Tessa. She is outspoken, courageous, smart, and more than a little quirky. Tessa fights to find her place in a world where she is isolated, separated from a father she barely knows, and caught in her mother and grandmother's caustic relationship. Always an intuitive child, she makes a discovery when looking into a mirror one night. She sees and communicates with her great-grandmother Eunice and great-aunt Gertie. They become her confidants and friends, though she isn't allowed to mention them to her grandmother, who considers any talk of spirits to be of the devil. When a new preacher comes to the small town and frequently begins to visit the small family for prayer and healing, it puts into motion a series of events that will tear the family apart and change Tessa's life forever. Her mother becomes pregnant, the preacher flees, and a marriage of convenience follows. When Tessa can no longer stay with her mother, she returns to her grandmother's home to discover another spirit awaits her. But this one comes with an unearthed skeleton and a long-buried family secret.

The elements of Southern Gothic literature embedded in this novel are delightful, particularly in the story's religious aspects. Scenes of the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues are tinged with the type of eccentric humor known from writers such as Larry Brown, Eudora Welty, and Flannery O'Connor. Another literary device often used in the genre is displayed in Tessa's use of the language she overhears during arguments between her mother and grandmother. These inappropriate words used freely by a nine-year-old girl make for some embarrassing but comical moments in the plot. Furthermore, the author touches on societal and racial issues and attitudes of the period, which are staple subjects with Southern Gothic writers. Fans of novels set in small-town America with a good supply of idiosyncratic characters will enjoy this fast-paced rollercoaster ride. Although the protagonist is only nine, the language and subject matter of the work make it more appropriate for mature readers. The narrative's strength leads readers to want more of Tessa's story than this volume offers. One can only hope that a second installment is in the works.

A 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Award Commercial Fiction Honorable Mention

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