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October 09, 1994|CHARLES SOLOMON

OLD FRIENDS by Tracy Kidder (Houghton Mifflin: $10.95; 352 pp.) and HAVING OUR SAY: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years by Sarah L. Delany & A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth (Dell: $5.99; 299 pp., illustrated). Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Kidder uses his skills as a novelist to depict life and death in Linda Manor, a nursing home in New England. "Old Friends" focuses on two reluctant roommates: Lou, a gentle, capable man of 92, hindered by failing vision, and younger, better educated Joe, who suffers from diabetes and the aftereffects of a stroke. An unexpected friendship blossoms as they share their infirmities, the love of their families and their frustrations with professional care-givers. Each learns from the other in a gently moving portrait of human resilience. In contrast to the autumnal melancholy that pervades "Old Friends," "Having Our Say" suggests a visit to a pair of feisty maiden aunts. Sarah ("Sweet Sadie") and A. Elizabeth ("Queen Bess") Delany were 103 and 101 at the time of these interviews. Members of a prominent North Carolina African American family, both sisters were pioneers in their fields: Sadie in teaching, Bess in dentistry. Their memoirs have a warm straightforward charm. "Honey, when you get to be one hundred years old, you look back and see things very clearly," they declare and their vision encompasses the post-Reconstruction South, New York during the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement. The Delanys recognize the social and political barriers that prevented other African Americans from matching their achievements: Bess comments, "When Negroes are average, they fail, unless they are very, very lucky. Now, if you're average and white, honey, you can go far. Just look at Dan Quayle. If that boy was colored he'd be washing dishes somewhere."

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