A time to mourn, and a time to dance in Alice Walker's short stories

Part fact, part fiction, always strongly rooted in her own experience, the stories that make up Alice Walker's latest book begin with a poignant portrait of the writer as a young married woman. "Thirty years ago," she reflects, "I met, loved and married a man from a part of the country foreign to me."

Walker was an African-American from rural Georgia; he, a white, Jewish civil rights lawyer from the urban Northeast. They were young, in love, excited by the differences in their cultural, religious, and regional backgrounds, delighted by their shared values and vision of the future. Neither would have believed that just 10 years later, they would part, "in exhaustion and despair." But that is exactly what happened.

The opening story, "To My Young Husband," is in many ways the best: It recaptures the exhilaration, enthusiasm, and happiness of the young couple, laments the estrangement that led to their divorce, and tries, in a generous spirit, to analyze what went wrong.

Their child, now a grown woman, persuades them to see a therapist. For 18 years, she has been the go-between: "What she has noticed about each of us when we speak of the other is a kind of wistfulness. We seem to her bemused, often.... Not quite sure ourselves what happened to us."

There is no single answer. The strain of being an interracial couple in Mississippi, the danger of his civil rights work, the fear and loneliness that made her needy for more attention than he could give her, the sheer exhaustion that overtook them both: Walker identifies these as the chief problems, but she also mentions one that could far more easily have been fixed. When Walker became fascinated by the work of Zora Neale Hurston, the forgotten black writer whose legacy she helped rescue from obscurity, Walker's husband, who shared her passion for literature, for some reason refused to read Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God." His refusal is hard to fathom, particularly in view of the fact that Hurston's book happens to be a very readable novel of moderate length.

In other stories, Walker revisits the rural Georgia of her childhood, examines the relationship between two sisters, portrays the pleasures of a harmonious marriage, or describes the appeal of same-sex relationships.

Some of the stories read as if they had been written primarily to make the author feel good about herself, a worthy enough aim, but not enough to transform them from therapeutic exercises into literary art.

In this sense, Walker can sometimes be a nave writer, a daughter of 19th-century free spirits like Walt Whitman and George Sand, nakedly using her art as a way of working out her personal problems, valuing process over product, emotional experience over aesthetic accomplishment.

Like a latter-day Whitman, Walker wants to reach out to her fellow countrymen of all creeds and colors: The book, significantly, is dedicated "To the American race."

For many readers, particularly those who, like her, came of age in the 1960s, Walker's reflections will ring an especially plangent bell, because she upholds the more positive and constructive aspects of that troubled and turbulent era: peace, love, and freedom rather than violence, resentment, and disrespect.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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