A richly textured first novel that begins with lyrical evocations of loss and love in two intertwined African-American families, but which later becomes more synopsis than saga. In a nameless midwestern city, in 1910, the already fragile marriage of Eula and Ontario Smalls ends with Ontario's fatal fall while cleaning windows. Eula, with children Vesta and baby LaRue, is taken in by neighbors Ruby and Polaris Staples. The families had first met when Eula, badly beaten by Ontario, had fled with her two children and Ruby had been the only neighbor on the street willing to take her in. The two families now begin to live together with remarkable ease. Young Vesta is treated by Ouida, the Staples' only daughter, as the sister she'd always wanted; little LaRue and Ruby share a common delight in stories and creating beautiful things; and Eula, though scarred, finds solace in her work and in the affectionate security the Staples home provides. But as the story moves forward, the pace of events both personal and public accelerates, shortchanging plot and character along the way. Only LaRue's ``famous'' stories about Miss Snake, although they too lose much of their early charm as they multiply, seem to slow down the apparent rush to be done with the story. Vesta, forever affected by her family's past, lives a life of rigid order, only slightly relieved by the joy of raising the child during whose birth Ruby dies; Ouida, after a few failed affairs, finds true love with another woman; and LaRue, Ruby's male alter ego, becomes the family's nurturer and chronicler, who offers himself as the serpent's gift, the doorway ``to the things that had happened before, to the things that had happened between them--to their history.'' The seismic changes in race relations are perceptively noted, as are the realities of African-American lives, but the cursory treatment that results from the sprint to get it all down mars what could have been a magnificent African-American saga.