cover image Feather Crowns

Feather Crowns

Bobbie Ann Mason. HarperCollins Publishers, $23 (454pp) ISBN 978-0-06-016780-6

In her longest, most ambitious work to date, Mason chronicles the spiritual and emotional journey taken by Christie Wheeler, a Kentucky farmer's wife who gives birth to quintuplets in the spring of 1900. The evocative physical detail, tart dialogue, wry humor and striking ability to capture the rich complexity of working people's lives that distinguished Mason's earlier books ( In Country ; Shiloh and Other Stories ; etc.) are linked here to a more overtly philosophical quest for meaning that marks this novel as an exciting extension of the writer's already considerable gifts. The first two sections sketch the apocalyptic climate into which the quintuplets have been born: at the turn of the century, a terrible earthquake is predicted, and the pregnant Christie joins other uneasy souls at a camp meeting in Reelfoot, where a handsome preacher warns of the judgment to come. That judgment turns out to be a terrifying deluge of attention that readers will recognize as the early stirrings of modern celebrity culture: hordes of people take the train up from Memphis just to gawk at the infants, and in one quietly shocking moment, a man enters through a window while Christie is nursing. The circus-like atmosphere infects the Wheelers as well; Christie's husband James is convinced by his Uncle Wad to charge admission as a means of paying back the couple's debt to him. After all five babies die halfway through the story, the estranged husband and wife seek to place blame and find a reason for their loss, a search symbolized by the ``feather crowns'' found in the infants' pillow, variously considered by folk legend to be signs of impending death or proof that the deceased are in heaven. Ultimately, although Christie and James have different ideas about the significance of their ordeal, they reaffirm their love. In the novel's beautiful closing section, a first-person monologue set in 1963, the elderly Christie reveals that painful metaphysical questions she asked in 1900 helped her return to daily life with renewed understanding and joy. ``I don't aim to live out my days all hunched up over my memories,'' she says. ``I want to watch the sun come up and hear a hen cackle over a new-laid egg and feel a kitten purr . . . Things like that are absolutely new ever time they happen.'' 60,000 first printing; $100,000 ad/promo; 18-city author tour. ( Sept. )