The background is rich but the core is hollow in this memoir depicting a young African-American woman's coming of age in the pre--civil rights South. McDowell (English and African-American Studies/Univ. of Virginia) weaves a web of memories that focus on her early childhood years in the black working-class community of Birmingham, Ala., known as the Pipe Shop. While providing sundry details about herself and her family, a complete portrait of these never emerges. What is most successfully defined here is the marked difference between the Pipe Shop of the '50s and '60s and the one McDowell returns to in the '90s, as she pursues a lawsuit involving asbestos poisoning that may have killed her father years earlier. Despite infidelities, illnesses, racial discrimination, and lapses in employment, the lives led in the Pipe Shop of McDowell's childhood were marked by steadiness and endurance. Compared with what the last two decades have wreaked on the American black family, it was, according to the author, a time of wholesome innocence. ""Marijuana had not yet filtered into Pipe Shop. . . . In our adolescent minds, dope was right up there with 'doing the nasty'--nice girls did neither, especially if they wanted to go to college and marry nice men."" Thirty years later the town is no longer recognizable. Its aura of warmth and care has been replaced by desolation and haphazardness. With the decline of industry, most of the young people have left. The jobs done by black men--who were always underpaid and overlooked in promotions--are now done faster and better by new machinery. Those black males remaining in the Pipe Shop either deal drugs or live off their grandparents' Social Security checks. But glimpses into McDowell's emotions are sparse, even when she recounts an illegal abortion. Somewhat satisfying as social history, this narrative is less successful as personal memoir.