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IN BRIEF

Fiction

March 08, 1992|MICHAEL HARRIS

DREAMS LIKE THUNDER by Diane Simmons (Story Line Press: $22.95; 192 pp.) . Out in the pine-and-sagebrush country of eastern Oregon in the 1950s, the matriarch of a ranching family burns with resentment toward neighbors who, two generations ago, took most of her land. Her brother, who lost the land, lives in shamefaced isolation as a prospector. Her son, a wartime pilot, is grounded amid corn and cows. Her 10-year-old granddaughter, Alberta, lives in the serene expectation of inheriting the ranch--until, poking around in a barn loft, she discovers that the heroic pioneer who founded it may have murdered Indian children.

Author Diane Simmons ("Let the Bastards Freeze in the Dark") could have turned this novel into something bleak and revisionist, an expose of rural narrowness and a debunking of certain American illusions, but she didn't. The innocence of Alberta, whose point of view she uses, softens the picture, as does Simmons' own nostalgia.

Direct yet subtle, "Dreams Like Thunder" is really about leave-taking. Alberta is going to leave the land that has sustained and imprisoned her family, though she doesn't know it yet. All she knows is that the impending visit of sophisticated relatives--a military family that has lived in Japan--has upended her valley like a glass paperweight full of soap flakes, precipitating a snowstorm of revelations: that an elderly neighbor, to spite his daughter, is only pretending to drink himself to death; that her grandmother is as much a victim of the family legend as its iron-willed defender. Alberta will leave the valley--and be haunted for the rest of her life by the smells of hay and manure and mountain air, by the legend that is shaping her even as she rejects it.

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