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Where She Was by Anderson Ferrell (Knopf: $13.95, 141 pp.)

January 12, 1986|Laura Furman | Furman is the author of "Watch Time Fly" (Viking). and

Anderson Ferrell's first novel is a vibrant, solemn and sure narrative of the ordinary and spiritual life of Cleo Lewis, the wife of a tenant farmer on a Southern tobacco farm.

The novel's world of farm and family, the nearby town and its new subdivision, of black and white, man and woman is an orderly one in which everyone and everything--even nature--seems to know to stay in its place. Cleo, mother of two, excellent housekeeper and helper to her husband, smart and observant, has her literal place--a place she has worn in her kitchen floor, from which she observes the farm. "She could stand at her sink, where the white linoleum with its evenly spaced red and yellow lines had worn down to a clay color, and see at least part of what was going on in all four directions."

The novel is set at the height of summer, when nature is at its fullest, when the tobacco is ready to be harvested, bundled, and the bundles looped onto "dry pine sticks half a cent each from the lumber yard, and looped on not too heavy. It's got to breathe, they knew. It's got to be done right."

Dividing his book into four parts, Ferrell gives us the farm, the town where Cleo's husband goes to pick up day workers for the harvest, the church, then the forest behind the farm--a primeval arena that threatens the orderly restrictions of the other settings. For the book is not only about the tobacco harvest but about Cleo's search for God and for rebirth.

" 'Ye must be born again!' just like it says," Cleo's friend Hazel reminds her. "You got to get the Holy Ghost. It's got to descend on you. It's got to pick you. But you got to get it." Hazel, a member of the True Gospel Holiness Powerhouse Holy Ghost Church, lives in a subdivision with her husband who quit farming and deprived her of the life she liked, one of hard, unrelenting, satisfying work.

Cleo has attended Newcombe's Chapel Free Will Baptist Church and found another kind of order, the class system, for she, a poor farmer's wife, isn't really welcome there. Hazel's church is where Cleo belongs, yet "she felt like of all places she belonged here least."

But it isn't in church that Cleo is saved nor is it by a preacher. Ferrell transports God from the civilized church to a more primitive and convincing place.

There is someone living in the woods behind the farm, a man who is more like an animal than a man, neither white nor black, whom Cleo sees stealing food from her jewel-like garden, and whom she follows into the woods one hot dark night. Whether Ferrell means the man to be the Holy Ghost or not, he does perform a magical act.

Cleo Lewis is born again--if being born again means being terrified and disoriented, in doubt of her sanity. Cleo has to choose her life again, and remake her place in the world and, literally, at her kitchen sink. Ferrell makes Cleo's extraordinary experience believable by rooting it in an orderly world and in realistic detail, by telling his story from a distant perspective and in transparent language.

"Where She Was" is remarkable for a first novel, admirable for a novel at any stage of a writer's life. If at times the characters and their lives seem idealized, even romanticized, it is the idealized patterning of a primitive painting, Rousseau in the American South. It is an effective background for Cleo's desire to be born again. "Where She Was" is a more than distinguished debut for Anderson Ferrell.

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