THE BRAHMINS by Eileen Lottman


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Far more engaging and somewhat more shapely than Joel Gross' similar Home of the Brave (p. 507), this Boston saga offers vignettes from assorted generations of a single American family--with most of the focus on a time-distanced pair of moderately gutsy women; and the novel is at its best when first introducing us to these two charmers. We first meet Kate Stafford in 1927: she's eleven, running away from her proper, boring Beacon Hill home, slipping off to N.Y. on a train--determined to meet the great Lindbergh. Then we go back to 1688 to meet Kate's ancestor Emily, gritty young wife of dreamy Liverpool artist Ned Sifford; it's Emily who pulls the whole Sifford clan together when shady patriarch Edward suddenly announces that they all must hop a ship to the New World. (Since smuggler Edward's on the run from the law, the family name is changed to Stafford.) And a few strong episodes do follow once the Staffords arrive in Boston and start building a shipping/privateering/slave-trade fortune--especially the fate of Emily's sister-in-law Anne, whose fanatical husband becomes a Salem witchtrial judge. (Emily's visit to Salem, while pregnant, gives rise to centuries of whispers and wonderings about a family curse.) But soon, unfortunately, things become predictably soap-operatic in both time frames. During the Depression, Kate rebels against the family, works with union folk and Communists, and marries an Irish labor-organizer who becomes a WW II fatality; spotty sequences involving the McCarthy era, the JFK election, the '68 unrest, and women's lib ensue. And back in the 18th century, Emily's spinster daughter Sarah is the center of a forbidden love-triangle, then becomes a Tea Party patriot in her sixties. Plus: a sketchy glimpse of Kate's Great-Aunt Grace--first as an anti-slavery child of the 1850s, later as a notorious, cigar-smoking lesbian/ artist. Unfortunately, however, despite the threads that run through the generations (the curse, feminism, the loony-genius streak), Lottman can't keep this helter-skelter overview from petering out into date-lined fragments. And the dialogue, especially in the 1930s, slips into one B-movie clichÉ after another. But those opening sections are crisp and tart, the Boston-history details have a definite appeal, and (with a couple of minor exceptions) Lottman never goes in for the melodrama/sex excesses that often afflict the multi-generational genre.

Pub Date: July 14th, 1982
Publisher: Delacorte