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Book Report: This author shines as voice of a community

Novelist Toni Morrison has won the National Book Critics Circle, the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for her fiction.

Little wonder.

Her newest novel, "Home" (Alfred Knopf, $24.95) shows her at her best as a storyteller and one of the foremost interpreters of the negro experience in America.

Her story is about Frank Money and his kid sister Ycidra, whose family has been driven from Texas by white trash to a little black community, Lotus Georgia, where they bed down with grandmother Lenore and her husband Salem, an unemployable fellow who struck it rich because Lenore owns a used Ford.

Whites in the novel are not the only trashy ones, as sister Ycidra points out early in the novel.

"A mean grandmother is one of the worst things a girl could have. Mamas are supposed to spank and rule you so you grow up knowing right from wrong. Grandmothers, even when they've been hard on their own children, are forgiving and generous to their grandchildren. Ain't that so?

"Well, that's the way grandmothers should be, she thought, but for little Ycidra Money it wasn't like that at all. Because (her) mam and pap worked from before sunrise until dark, they never know that (grandmother) Lenore poured water instead of milk over the shredded wheat Ycidra and her brother ate for breakfast. Nor that when they had stripes and welts on their legs they were cautioned to lie, to say the got them by playing out by the stream where brambles and huckleberry thorns grew."

Her brother Frank hates the town and when he comes of age he and two of his pals enlist and go off to fight in the Korean War, leaving Ycidra to fend for herself. Of the three boys only Frank survives the nightmare of Korea and returns to the states swearing to never return to Lotus, carrying psychological baggage too heavy for him to tote. He makes his way to Chicago where he meets a new friend, Billy Watson at a diner for negroes.

Morrison shines in this episode because she creates conversational give-and-take, the badinage of black folks. The passage reminds me of stopping for gasoline at Kirkwood Anderson's Mobil in south Minneapolis and staying to listen to a brace of old black men, many of them retired Pullman porters, chew the fat for hours. Morrison likely heard the same conversations as a girl growing up in Lorain, Ohio. Here's how it goes:

"Watson. Billy Watson.'

"Frank Money"

"Where you from, Frank?"

"Aw, man. Korea, Kentucky, San Diego, Seattle, Georgia. Name it I'm from it."

"You looking to be from here too?"

"No. I'm headed on back to Georgia."

"Georgia?" the waitress shouted. "I got people in Macon. No good memories about that place. We hid in an abandoned house for half a year."

"Hid from what? White sheets?"

"Naw, the rent man."

"Same thing."

"Why him?"

"Oh, please. It was 1938."

Up and down the counter there was laughter, loud and knowing. Some began to compete with stories of their own deprived life in the thirties.

"Me and my brother slept in a freight car for a month."

"Where was it headed?"

"Away, was all we knew."

"You sleep in a coop the chickens wouldn't enter?"

"Aw, man, shut up. We lived in a ice house."

"Where was the ice?"

"We ate it."

"Get out!"

"I slept on so many floors, first time I saw a bed I thought it was a coffin."

So why is Frank breaking his oath and going back to Lotus, Georgia? Because he received a letter saying that his sister was dying as a result of her working as a secretary for a white M.D., who was using her as a guinea pig for his gynecological "inventions."

With the help of the old women in Lotus he saves Ycidra and along the way has an epiphany about a horrific episode in Korea that helps him exorcise the devils that have haunted him since his return.

In a final scene a healed Frank and a healed Ycidra perform a proper burial for the one murdered black man who refused to be forced out of Texas those many years ago.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.