Memory and Imagination Reclaim the Past Stories Take Readers from the Old Testament to the Jim Crow South to Contemporary Hollywood

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MISS OPHELIA

By Mary Burnett Smith

William Morrow 277 pp.,$24 THE RED TENT By Anita Diamant. A Wyatt Book for St. Martin's Press 321 pp., $23.95 BLESSING ON THE MOON By Joseph Skibell Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 256 pp, $21.95 IF YOU LIVED HERE, YOU'D BE HOME BY NOW By Sandra Tsing Loh Riverhead Books 231 pp., $23.95 Sifting through the stacks of first novels that pile up in my study, I came across four that, in their very different ways, managed to hold my attention and engage my imagination. These four writers tackle totally dissimilar subjects. Each has honed a distinct style of writing. And each has chosen to work in a very different novelistic form. Ordinary daily life in rural Virginia in 1948 is the subject of Mary Burnett Smith's evocative Miss Ophelia. Herself a retired schoolteacher, Smith touchingly portrays a pivotal summer in the life of Isabel ("Belly") Anderson, an 11-year-old black girl. The story is told by Isabel herself, now a grandmother with a keen memory for the people and events that helped form her adult character. A voracious reader, young Belly devours every book she can get her hands on, from fairy tales to "Silas Marner." She also learns from observing what goes on around her. There are secrets aplenty: teenage pregnancy, illicit love affairs, hushed-up abortions. But, as her Uncle Willie wisely remarks, the more she finds out, the less likely it is that she'll make the same mistakes. Belly learns by example and counter-example: from those she loves, like her clear-headed mother, and from those of whom she's not so fond, like her mother's carping, sanctimonious sister, Aunt Rachel. When she reluctantly goes for a long visit to her aunt's, Belly's great consolation is taking piano lessons from the reclusive, but kindly Miss Ophelia. Entering adolescence in the segregated South, Belly inhabits a world that is largely black, but not free from color prejudice. Light-skinned Aunt Rachel looks down on plum-colored Miss Ophelia, even though the latter is far better educated than she is. Learning to judge people by their inner qualities is another lesson Belly learns on her journey toward adulthood. Smith has created an appealing heroine, refreshingly outspoken, yet capable of self-criticism and self-discipline. Anita Diamant's The Red Tent is a historical novel, more specifically, a biblical novel, a genre that has attracted such diverse talents as Lew Wallace, Sholem Asch, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Thomas Mann. Diamant's novel is based on the biblical figure Dinah, only daughter of the patriarch Jacob, sister to the 12 brothers whose offspring became the tribes of Israel. Dinah's main claim to fame in Genesis arose from her being raped by the son of a neighboring king. But, as Diamant has conceived it, there is much more to her story. In "The Red Tent," she creates a voice for this neglected woman, allowing her to tell, not only her version of the rape, but the entire story of her life and the lives of her mothers. Dinah is born to the fecund, capable Leah. But Jacob's other wives - Leah's sister Rachel, and Zilpah and Bilhah - are also "mothers" to her. Each has something special to impart, whether it's Leah's excellent recipes, Zilpah's legends and songs, Bilhah's kind-heartedness, or Rachel's skills as a midwife. Diamant, an award winning journalist, vividly conjures up the ancient world of caravans, shepherds, farmers, midwives, slaves, and artisans in a novel that takes us from Mesopotamia and Canaan down into Egypt, where Dinah, like her more famous brother Joseph, finds a refuge. It's revisionist feminist history, to be sure, but inventiveness befits a work of fiction. Diamant's Dinah is a compelling narrator of a tale that has timeless resonance. In A Blessing on the Moon, Joseph Skibell has created a kind of extended fable, with strong elements of fantasy and the grotesque. …