Jessica Handler’s mother was the first to tell her about Lulu Hurst.
Handler and her mother shared an interest in stories of remarkable women, so years ago, when Handler’s mother came across an article about Hurst, she emailed a copy to her daughter. The article was titled “The Feats of the Magnetic Girl Explained.”
“I just fell in love with her, although I’d never heard of this girl,” Handler said. After reading some of Greil Marcus’s musings on American folk music, Handler felt an attraction to what Marcus called “the old, weird America.” The Magnetic Girl felt like a part of that.
Lulu Hurst was born and grew up dirt poor in the Georgia mountains, but, for a few years in the 1880s, when she was a teenager and electricity and magnetism were something exotic that happened in faraway big cities, she toured the country performing “magnetic tests” in towns large and small.
She appeared in vaudeville houses across the South, in cities such as Atlanta and Baltimore, in New York, and even out west, Handler said. While onstage, Lulu supposedly used magnetism in her body to lift people seated in parlor chairs or to knock grown men across the stage.
Later, years after she had retired from the stage and settled in Madison, Ga., Lulu wrote her autobiography and explained how her tests actually were done. They were tricks, stagecraft, and she was a charlatan. The members of her audience were fooled. They saw what they were told they should see and what they wanted to see.
Now Handler, who teaches writing at Oglethorpe University, has put together her own book about Lulu the performer. “The Magnetic Girl,” Handler’s first novel, is winning attention from publications as varied as The Wall Street Journal and The Bitter Southerner.
As a writer, Handler isn’t a novice. When she was younger, she worked as a TV producer, on game shows, but since 2009, she’s published a couple of nonfiction books, including a memoir called “Invisible Sisters,” about the deaths of her two siblings when they were young, and a book on writing about grief.
She bears a physical reminder of her sisters in the form of a tattoo of a crow on her upper arm. She chose the crow, she said, because she was once told the birds travel in threes. Her other arm is tattooed with an image of a hummingbird, chosen, she said, “because hummingbirds are beautiful, fast and fierce and wouldn’t that be a fun thing to be?”
She decided to write a novel about “The Magnetic Girl” rather than another nonfiction work so she could try to get inside young Lulu Hurst’s head. A nonfiction account, she said, could end up as little more than a list of Lulu’s performances.
“She was amazing,” Handler said over lunch at a coffee shop recently. “I wanted to look at Lulu as a girl. She’s responding to the coming fear of the 20th century. … Old ways were starting to change.”
Handler says she spent about a decade working on her novel. She read an original copy of Lulu’s book and newspaper accounts of her shows. She traveled to Cedartown to stand at a field where the Hurst family once had a home. And Handler tried to learn to perform Lulu’s “tests” herself, but never fully mastered them. “The chair thing, I can’t figure,” she said.
Still, Handler doesn’t see Lulu simply as another stage magician. “I don’t think she presented it as ‘magic,’” Handler said. “She was willing to go along with the cultural assumption, the collective belief, that she had magnetism in her fingers.”
For her version of Lulu’s story, Handler invented a sick younger brother the teen wanted to use her powers to save and portrays the teen’s relationship with her father and mother, who enjoy the benefits of her small, but growing, celebrity. “What attracted me to her was this question her autobiography didn’t answer: Why did she do it? When you’re a teenager in a small town, maybe you just want to get out.”
Handler recognized something of herself in her subject.
“I was an awkward teen,” Handler said. “I don’t know whether Lulu was comfortable with the way people saw her. In real life, she left the stage, and I don’t know why … In her, I see a teenaged girl who is seen by the world in a way and she realizes in the end she is going to have to be the one to change the way people see her.”
After all, the Magnetic Girl lived in a time of change.