Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Like African American writers such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Virginia Hamilton, Joyce Carol Thomas tries to re-create African American experience through character and setting. The main character of Bright Shadow is Abyssinia, who is also the heroine of Marked by Fire. On the first page of this sequel, she is described with words that connote heat. Words boil from her scorched voice. She glows. She feels marinated. These words are simply transition devices to take her from the previous novel into this one, because fire is not featured at all in Bright Shadow.

As in the preceding novel, characters have names that define them in some way. Abyssinia is a biblical term for Ethiopia and is sometimes used as an adjective to mean “African” or “black.” Her parents are patient and strong as their names suggest, and Aunt Serena is serene. The first name of Rufus Jordan, Aunt Serena’s crazy husband, means “red”—the color of blood.

Although significant names and description are used to depict character, Thomas’s primary technique is revelation of character through dialogue. Conversations among characters display their personalities as if they were on stage. For example, readers find out about Abby’s secret quilting stitch that defies unraveling, Rufus Jordan’s braggadocio, and Aunt Serena’s ability to see visions as these persons engage in discourse with other characters.

Abyssinia, like many heroines of African American fiction, is both spiritual and mystical, but she has a practical side as well. She can cook good meals, grow flowers, and collect herbs. She is industrious. She is emotional, but she is also smart and well organized.

Her love for Carl Lee grows as the novel progresses. She helps him find the courage to break away from an intolerable situation and to go out on his own. Although he is a well-developed character, readers are unlikely to sympathize with him as much as with the heroine.

Character development and dialogue are both expertly handled. The story, which endows everyday events with the magic of fairy tale, could be classified as a love story, but it is also about overcoming grief. The style is simple and direct.

Bright Shadow can be compared with a blues song. Life’s problems and joys are treated dramatically in both, and lyrical style, vivid imagery, and strong emotion are common to both. Some critics have mentioned overwriting as a fault of the novel, but if the book is viewed as a spontaneous presentation in the manner of a blues song, such flaws are to be expected. Grandiose fantasy mixed with ordinary events is another characteristic of the blues.

A description of icicles in the book is reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen’s work. His influence is...

(The entire section is 1151 words.)