Tense novel of residual idealism, racism

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Civil Wars, by Rosellen Brown. New York: Penguin Contemporary American Fiction. 419 pp. $6.95, paper. This fine, tense novel, first published in 1984, is Brown's most ambitious work to date. Its main characters are Teddy and Jessie Carll, who met during the civil rights movement of the 1960s -- when he was the renegade son of a conservative Alabama family (``a Confederate child growing up to be a moral Yankee''), and she was Jessie Singer, a New Yorker raised by Communist parents, come South with the Freedom Riders to put her inherited egalitarian principles to work registering voters.

The story begins in 1979. Teddy and Jessie, married for many years, have two fine children, Andy and Lydia, who admirably reflect their ideals and energies. The Carlls are the last white family remaining in a formerly integrated neighborhood of Jackson, Miss. The old feelings of brotherhood are dissipating; witness the small harassments and acts of vandalism by which the Carlls' black neighbors are pressuring them to move out.

Jessie realizes that Teddy yearns for the movement to need him again; she sees him ``rusting with disuse,'' and fears his increasing distance from her practical, necessary absorption in raising their family. This felt conflict becomes an open one after the sudden, shocking news that Teddy's sister and husband have been killed in an automobile accident -- and bequeathed the Carlls, not just their wealth and property, but also the guardianship of their two children, Helen and O'Neill. Both have been raise d with their parents' racist attitudes. Teddy and Jessie progress through shock, then outrage, to a helpless resignation that they must acknowledge the claims of family and shoulder their burden.

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Rosellen Brown has brought to this important subject -- the residue of youthful idealism, and the need to adapt it to one's changing life -- an edgy intelligence and integrity that bring this big book vividly alive. I'm troubled, however, by its virtually exclusive focus on Jessie's and Helen's feelings, and by its decision to show Teddy only from outside, as a failure (and, almost, a villain). ``Civil Wars'' doesn't, therefore, realize all its admirable ambitions -- still, both Brown's reach and her gr asp are something to see; and the novel is not to be missed.

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