ROADWALKERS by Shirley Ann Grau


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Polished prose almost disguises and makes up for the surprising emotional distance in this novel of two generations. Grau (Nine Women, 1985, etc.) is a great stylist, and in relating the story of Baby, an African-American child first seen wandering the roads of the American South with two siblings in 1934, and then that of her daughter Nanda, she has complete control over language. Perhaps it is Baby's numbingly sad existence that moves the action one notch away from the reader. Abandoned by an aunt on the way to Atlanta and then left by their sister as well, Baby and her brother, Joseph, tramp along until a farmer finds them and gets into a knife fight with Joseph. Baby is delivered to a convent in a sack and wearing a harness. A young novice-to-be named Rita teaches the girl the ways of civilization -- including toilet-training -- and names her Mary Woods, after the virgin mother and the place the farmer found her. When Mary is informed that she will be sent to work as a servant, she runs away. The second half of the book is devoted to her daughter, the offspring of a salesman from India, who grows up in an only slightly more conventional environment believing that she is a princess. Grau's images are quietly startling, but she has a tendency to give too much background about minor characters. The man who discovers Baby and her brother in the woods is the subject of a complete genealogy, and Rita's route to the convent is explicated at greater than necessary length. Even during these superfluous passages, however, the text flows easily. A distinct and enjoyable voice that sometimes loses its way.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0807129135
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Knopf