The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Harlan Jane Eagleton is at the same time a sharply unique character and a sort of African American Everywoman. There is an edge to her outlook on life; she does not believe or trust everyone she meets, but at the same time she approaches most people and happenings with a bracing openness. Joan notes that Harlan always seems to fit in anywhere she wants to be. She is largely self-educated, yet her conversations show a surprisingly wide range of knowledge. While envying Joan’s glamour and sense of style, Harlan is usually content to look—in one church lady’s words—like she belongs on a motorcycle. Harlan bears little resemblance, physically or psychologically, to the popular stereotypes of a faith healer. She readily admits she has no idea how she does the healing, and she does not mystify her gift with ceremony or magic formulations.

Joan Savage, in contrast, takes pride in being mercurial and flamboyant. She even considered calling herself Joan “The Darling Bitch” Savage, but she changed her mind after hearing an announcer use the term to introduce her. Like many artists, she is never quite confident about her talent but rushes offstage to wring her hands in her dressing room. Her friendship with Harlan serves as a catalyst to both women’s self-knowledge.

The novel’s other characters have some interesting complexities too, such as Josef’s disdain for most of American culture and his contradictory regard for American women. Nicholas J. Love is especially memorable in his roles as head bodyguard and witness to a miracle. A giant of a man, he indulges in only a little hyperbole when he says “Y’all know I’m a powerful man,” but his inner persona is gentle and honest. Norvelle is possibly the least well defined of the several male characters, but that may be because Harlan Jane still sees him through the eyes of love. His enthusiasm for gathering African medical folklore despite personal discomfort or exhaustion forms the very image of the dedicated professor.