By Shirley Ann Grau
Alfred A. Knopf
292 pp. $22
`ROADWALKERS'' is Shirley Ann Grau's ninth book. Her first, ``The Black Prince and Other Stories,'' came out in 1955. Three books and 10 years later, she won a Pulitzer Prize with her novel ``The Keepers of the House.'' Following her 1977 novel, ``Evidence of Love,'' there was a seven-year hiatus before the appearance of her story collection ``Nine Women,'' and nine years have intervened between that book and this new one.
A writer who only speaks when she's sure she has something to say? A conscientious craftswoman who takes time to polish and refine her work? Shirley Ann Grau would seem to answer to both descriptions. But the rate at which her books appear also seems connected to a sort of slow-motion, freeze-frame quality in her storytelling. Narrative sequence does not flow easily in her work: Characters seem caught up in a motionless present, only to be hit with abrupt changes that alter the course of their lives yet leave their essential natures intact.
``Roadwalkers'' begins in the Great Depression. The scene is set with an almost Biblical simplicity and restraint:
``In 1934 this is the way it was. Homeless people were moving in a steady flow across the southern part of the country, back and forth across the surface of the earth, seaweed on a tide that ebbed and rose according to the seasons.... They were called roadwalkers.... Sometimes the groups were children. Just children.''
One such child is a little black girl named Baby. In the first and most powerful section of the novel, we see the world through the eyes of this phlegmatic, resourceful girl, and learn how she and her siblings lost, first, their parents and home, and later, one another on the road. The next section relates the history of a white family, the Tuckers, who find Baby on their land and send her to a Roman Catholic orphanage, where she is christened Mary Woods. The following section describes Mary's stay there from the viewpoint of a young nun assigned to her case.
In the novel's second half, the story is taken up by Mary's daughter, Nanda, the cherished ``princess'' of her mother's ``magic kingdom.'' Half black, half East Indian, Nanda is raised as an exotic, proudly wearing the exquisite clothes her mother makes for her. In time, Mary establishes herself as an exclusive ``modiste,'' with separate shops for blacks and whites.
Nanda is sent to a prestigious Catholic girls' school, where for awhile she is the sole black student. Graceful, imperious, self-sufficient, she excels at whatever she undertakes - with the exception of friendship. Uncomfortable with whites, she also feels estranged from the black girls who later join her at the school. Her coldness does not seem to stop her from going on to romance, marriage, and a materially successful life.
This novel loses its peculiar beauty and intensity once Baby is discovered by the Tuckers. The section providing their family history seems beside the point, while the chapter on Baby's schooling, though more relevant, is standard wild-child-meets-civilization. Nanda's narrative is compelling, but not very moving.
It is easier to sympathize with Baby's quiet bravery than with her daughter's chilly petulance. Perhaps this is part of the story Grau wants to tell: the unforeseen effects of one generation's experience on the next. But each chapter that takes us further from our arresting first encounter with the ``roadwalker'' also takes us farther from the vitality of the novel's original vision.