“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Patsy Ann Odom’s novel, Stained Glass, was born from the memory of a stained glass window in the unfinished third floor of her childhood home. It is the theme of light and dark that carries protagonist Erin Rose from childhood through adulthood. To see the true beauty of the stained glass window, Erin must have lightness in her heart. While the window only appears a few times in the story, it is the guiding principle of Erin’s journey to find her own bright light.
Stained Glass is a Southern Gothic story that takes place in more modern times. Set in fictional Oak Glen, North Carolina, the setting is just as much a character as the people are. The story spans the years between the 1940s and the 1970s, a time of strict moral values, social classes and ideas about women’s roles in the world. While the story itself follows Erin Rose and her life, the situations are impacted by the time and place.
Odom shocks readers by starting the book with the suicide of Erin Rose’s mother. Her death is an introduction to Erin’s life in current times and we are immediately taken into a world that holds a great deal of sadness, even if the reasons are not instantly illuminated. “Mama” struggled with alcoholism and addiction, and from Erin Rose’s reactions to her death, she wasn’t the only one with deep emotional scars.
From the pain of the suicide we are whisked back in time to Erin’s happiest days – when her father was alive. Erin’s father is the embodiment of love for her, and Erin’s “childhood dies when Daddy dies.” He was the one who encouraged her to ask questions of everything around her, to read books and gain knowledge and to be kind. Unfortunately, Erin’s mother was the darkness to his light. She feared the world around her, told Erin to never question anything in the Bible and was never quite satisfied with her own life.
Understanding Erin’s parents gives the reader insight into Erin Rose’s life. The story spun for the reader is of Erin Rose always striving to find light even when the harsh realities of her world create darkness. Her first taste of darkness comes when her favorite uncle dies, and for the first time she suffers from a deep sense of grief. Less than a year later, her world tumbles down when her father dies. Erin finds solace and escape through books and a vivid imagination. She gets more comfort from make-believe worlds than her own reality.
A life lived through books, however, also gives her a sense of naiveté. The excitement that Luke McLeod brings to her life supersedes any doubts that he might not be as kind as she thinks he is. But marriage to Luke isn’t all that Erin expected, and instead it is filled with adultery, deceit, violence and betrayal.
Erin learns over the years that you never really know the ones that you love. But through it all, Erin manages to keep moving forward and ultimately find her own freedom.
As with most Southern Gothic stories, the characters that fill Erin’s life are flawed, damaged and sometimes downright cruel. Erin struggles with a deep sense of alienation while trying to find her place in the world, a world that she doesn’t quite feel like she fits into. Those that enjoy this genre and writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote might want to give Stained Glass a try.
To read Michelle Goetzl’s conversation with Patsy Ann Odom click on current issue – June 2018.