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Wounds That Heal, Ties That Bind : ROAD SONG; A Memoir By Natalie Kusz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $18.95; 216 pp.)

November 11, 1990|Nancy Forbes Romano | Romano taught fiction writing at Columbia University and is currently working on a collection of short stories. and

"Road Song: A Memoir" is a riveting first book. Writing in a prose so clear that you can see to the very bottom of her startling experience, Natalie Kusz tells the story of her family's migration from Los Angeles to Alaska 21 years ago, when she was 6 years old.

It is a vivid account of pioneer living on America's last frontier, but at the center of the story is an event so shocking that even the power and beauty of the Alaskan wilderness turns to wallpaper. On a freezing winter afternoon, soon after her seventh birthday, Natalie falls prey to a pack of starving dogs, losing chunks of her face and head. That night her mother prays for her to die.

Of the children's hospital where Natalie lives at first, among a changing circle of doomed children, she writes: "For most of us, it became clear that horror can last only a little while, and then it becomes commonplace." Though far from commonplace, Kusz's writing is compellingly matter-of-fact. Her memory is purified of brooding, self-pity and blame.

With crystalline precision, she relives the progression of her bone grafts, her friendships, her enemies. At 11, she pulls away from her pacifist parents because they allow her younger siblings to be tortured by schoolyard bullies. After her father finally teaches her to fight, she begins to take revenge--eventually going beyond revenge to draw blood for its own sake.

By the time she reaches high school, Natalie is a large, overweight girl with a patch over one missing eye, an outcast who has learned to command respect from her peers through violence. Now she starts on drugs, alcohol and sex, lying all the while to her concerned but overworked parents: "I grew so accustomed to the racing fear in my belly that in time I almost did not notice it."

Even at her most unrepentant, she can't shake her attachment to her family, and in the reliving of her delinquency, Kusz is mindful of the theme that runs through her whole memoir: the strength derived first from family. The issues that Kusz confronts are timely ones. As a voice from a new generation, she enters the hot debate on family values with innocent force. From the outset, and for their own reasons, Natalie's parents believed in solidarity.

Although Natalie often chafed under her parents' vigilance--heightened by the accident--she was unable to ward off its benefits. When her best friend Marcy asks her what her parents would do if they found out about her secret high school behavior, Natalie says: "They'd go on and on forever about trust and betrayal, and how a family is supposed to be all one fortress, no spies, no traitors."

"You mean your mom and dad like you?" her friend asks, "Jeez, if your parents like you, I don't see why you're here and not there ."

It is Natalie's pregnancy that finally brings the family together, as in the early years of her accident. "We were once again an alliance, once again defensible from the world."

As much as their memoir records suffering, it also recalls delights, midnight suns, and hard work. Natalie's family is courageously, desperately supportive, and the book bears witness to all the emotional states that such a family fosters, and then must withstand. The Kuszes lived together for years in just one room lit by kerosene lamps, telling stories, singing songs, planning houses. "Our sense of humor was our father's--absurd puns and loud, ungainly laughter--and our quickness to befriend other misfits was Mom's."

Natalie is nourished by stories, and she tells the histories of her own remarkable parents: Her father had escaped from Nazi Poland during the war, and her endlessly energetic mother turns out to have been driven by fears of her own mother's schizophrenia. These stories, like the less articulate ones she teases out of her younger brother and sisters, form and re-form for her, dissolving anger and rebellion into sympathy.

Some wounds don't heal; others do, leaving scars. "Road Song" is Natalie Kusz's effort to commemorate not her bodily injury--we never do get to see what, in fact, she looks like--but its spiritual cost. Her gifts as a writer, her original voice and sparkling perceptions, give this memoir the literary precision of a novel.

Kusz lets us into her life, and it is both a privilege and a pleasure to be there.

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