BLACK SHEEP AND KISSING COUSINS How Our Family Stories Shape Us by Elizabeth Stone (Times Books: $17.95)
Family stories were a rich tradition for most of our ancestors in Europe, where the sense of continuity with history is strong, but have they retained much force in America, where geographic mobility is often essential to upward mobility and a "big family" is generally considered to be one with three children? Elizabeth Stone, an English professor at New York City's Fordham University, found that in the United States, storytelling is still a vital way of socializing children, establishing a footing for family members and calling attention to strengths of ancestors. Family members interviewed by Stone tell dozens of revealing stories, from Mimi Runkle, who traces her workaholic nature to a severe Calvinist upbringing, to Laura Holmes, who tells how her great-uncle kept photos of all of his relatives to "prove" that there was a Holmes look--sturdy and durable. Stone doesn't place these stories in a broader social context, as Robert Bellah did in "Habits of the Heart." But this book remains charming and appealing because of Stone's delicate sensitivity, her wonder over the way an entire family ethos can be created out of stories "as invisible as air, as weightless as dreams."