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Thy People Shall Be My People

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): February 9, 1997, Sunday    
Thy People Shall Be My People     By Valerie Sayers    .


February 9, 1997, Sunday

Thy People Shall Be My People

By Valerie Sayers

By Michael Dorris.
316 pp. New York: Scribner. $24.

MICHAEL DORRIS is an anthropologist as well as a fiction writer, and his stories pay particular attention to what happens when American subcultures brush up against one another. His first novel, ''A Yellow Raft in Blue Water,'' traced the experiences of three generations of modern American Indian women. ''Cloud Chamber'' stretches back farther still, to the 19th-century Irish immigrants whose descendants eventually fall in love with some of the black and Indian characters in that earlier book.

The scope of the new novel is ambitious, if not daunting. It tells the stories of five generations who live in Ireland, Kentucky and Seattle and on a Montana reservation -- people whose lives are shaped by insurrection (in Ireland), confinement (to a tuberculosis sanitarium in Kentucky) and disappearance (into new lives across the country and across the sea). The dangers of cramming so much into roughly 300 pages are obvious, and I must confess to having had some misgivings -- despite my admiration for Mr. Dorris's earlier work -- as I began this account of a family's memories and myths.

The opening chapter is narrated by the matriarch, Rose Mannion (''In every generation that followed, it is said, there is but one like me''), whose hyper-romantic voice, close to stereotype, made me nervous. When it became clear that Rose would be involved in the struggles for Irish freedom, Big Myth alarm bells rang.

Mr. Dorris pulls off a wise move, however, shifting the novel from grand passion in Ireland to hard reality in the United States. As he does so, the first half of the book achieves a striking form, shaped by disease and accident: the family narrative is continued by Rose's husband, Martin, and her son, Robert -- both weak men, physically and psychologically -- before it is taken over by her daughter-in-law, Bridie, and her two granddaughters, Edna and Marcella. Their history is most effective when composed of shards of memory: the ragged jumps in the characters' storytelling and the novel's refusal to tidy up their mysteries are evocative and powerful.

Unlike their father, Edna and Marcella survive tuberculosis (the rich, compressed descriptions of their time in the sanitarium are among the most successful of the novel). And what they survive to achieve is, in 1930's Kentucky, a remarkable cultural merger: Marcella falls in love with the young black grocer who delivers supplies to the sanitarium. With Edna's help, the lovers escape, marry and have a son.

This is a resonant notion, one that might have inspired a moving conclusion. But Marcella's son, Elgin, appears in Mr. Dorris's earlier novel, and serious credibility problems arise as the two books merge. ''Cloud Chamber'' must actually undo some of the earlier facts of Elgin's life. More troubling, his statements about race in this new novel tend to be too abstract and neat -- especially for a black man who's asked to pass as Greek or Italian. (''As a Negro,'' he tells his mother, ''I can be me.'')

The novel hurtles toward the present. The story ends with Elgin's half-Indian daughter, Rayona, a smart teen-ager who narrates sections of both novels, and it is good to be listening to her again. With her sweet, ringing voice, she brings the novel to an optimistic close. The final scenes, depicting individual families that have survived bitter power struggles and resentments, suggest that entire cultures can also overcome the histories that have made them strangers. Perhaps this is too pretty an ending, but by the novel's end Rose Mannion's family has been linked to American culture at large, with its recombining ethnic hyphenations, its changing views of race and history and myth. It seems fair enough that a story of five generations of people who have stepped outside their own tribes to embrace others should end on such a clear, high note of hope.

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