cover image Roadwalkers


Shirley Ann Grau. Alfred A. Knopf, $22 (292pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43233-3

Two narratives uneasily coexist in this latest novel by Grau, one absorbing and potentially riveting, the other curiously dry and flat. The book's first half is as powerful as anything this talented writer ( Nine Women ) has ever produced. Her rhythmic prose accommodates precise yet incandescent descriptions of the natural world, and she evokes the patterns of daily farm life. Abandoned by their parents during the Depression, six young black children become homeless ``roadwalkers'' in the South. Eventually only Baby and her older brother Joseph remain, desperately foraging and stealing in order to survive. Possessed by inchoate anger, Joseph sets fires on a restored plantation; he escapes from a hunting party, but Baby is caught and sent to an orphanage by the farm's kind owner. There the feral child is named Mary Woods and treated with compassion, until she turns her back on those who succored her. Grau interweaves Baby's story with that of the plantation's white manager, Charles Wilson, drawing a moving comparison. Charles, too, loses his mother at a young age, but he has the safety net of family to sustain him. To this point, the narrative is luminous and involving, although Grau does spell out the spiritual bonds between her characters with some heavy-handedness, proclaiming empathies that are facile and devised. But when, in the book's second half, Mary's daughter, Nanda, becomes the protagonist, the narrative loses its way. Nanda's experiences at boarding school, where she is a pariah in a white world, are meant to explain her bitterness, fury and self-centeredness. But though Grau means to demonstrate how survivors suffer, learn and endure, Nanda and her mother are opaque and charmless; neither has a soul. One wishes that Grau had continued the path on which the first half of the book is so firmly placed. (July)