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Growing Up a Little Late : A pregnant woman comes to terms with her parents : SALT DANCERS, By Ursula Hegi (Simon & Schuster : $22; 235 pp.)

August 20, 1995|Susan Heeger | Heeger is a regular contributor to The Book Review

Good parents--even passable parents--are the early gods of childhood. How tall and strong they are when they waltz you on their feet; how endless their wisdom seems, how all-encompassing their love. It's part of the order of things that as kids grow, Mom and Dad are taken down a few pegs. But for some young ones, a parent's fall from grace is a major dive that takes years--even a lifetime--to get over.

Julia Ives, the narrator of Ursula Hegi's new novel, "Salt Dancers," may be 41 and pregnant with her own first child, but when she goes home to Spokane after 23 years away, she's still enraged and terrified by her father. Long ago, on her fourth birthday, benevolent and kingly as his wife and son looked on, he taught Julia the salt dance: "He sprinkled a line of salt on the living room floor, positioned my bare feet on top of his shoes, and told me to leave everything I feared or no longer needed behind that line."

Five years later, drunk and vicious, he drove her mother away and turned Julia's love to hatred, proving that the salt dance, and parental comfort, were lies. After an endless cycle of beatings and repugnant reconciliations, Julia left, vowing never to return. She's broken her promise for the sake of her child in an attempt to "sort out before her birth why things had gone so terribly wrong with my family."

So powerful is her father's hold on Julia--despite his frail physique, childish obsession with TV and dribbling table manners--that it's as if she'd never left. She's overcome with bitter memories, mostly of his violence and her defenselessness. Her agenda for her visit isn't clear.

Without anticipating his response, or thinking through her own objectives, she intends to confront Dad, still a dedicated alcoholic and master of denial, about why he beat her. It's not a promising plan, and it proceeds at a snail's pace given the family's clogged communication channels and Julia's tendency to get sandbagged by painful reflections. All in all, she seems doomed to leave more miserable than she arrived.

From a reader's vantage point, it's almost too much to watch, and there are no distractions: no comic relief, no real plot; the main view is of a woman clinging to old hurts, dragging around her resentment. ". . . The reality of that pain," she says, ". . . was something that was mine alone and that nobody could take away from me."

Regardless of her expressed intent to clear the air, Julia has returned to wring an apology from her dad and to make him suffer, which she does in petty, passive-aggressive ways. Yet when their showdown comes, it's sputtering and brief: She hardly speaks, her dad denies, she retreats inside herself with more resentment.

Most of the book unfolds in Julia's head, a claustrophobic place that nevertheless feels more real than the junk-filled house or the restaurants and hotel rooms in which she encounters people. Julia, perhaps typically for one abandoned young, is mistrustful, unable to give much of herself. Her scenes with family and friends are flat and undramatic, while her fantasies can be richly poetic. ("I'm still riding on my mother's shoulders, her hands warm braces around my ankles, linking me to her, to the ground, to the moon. . . .")

Although such writing is strong and confident, Hegi's relentless focus on Julia weakens her book. It's hard to maintain sympathy for a character so bent on cataloguing every wrong ever committed against her and so taken by the workings of her own mind. In fact, Julia is remarkably slow to understand her own feelings: her rage over her beloved mother's desertion; the love she feels for the abusive father who was also often kind. Between parents and children, nothing is simple, and it takes years, not days, to work through Julia's kind of confusion, to assemble the good and bad, the charming and hateful into one parent you can live with.

By the end of the book, which Ursula Hegi unfortunately insists on tying up neatly, Julia does make some progress, realizing that, in a way, her father was right. Suffering involves choice. You can draw a line in the salt and dance beyond it. "I could either hang onto this parental conflict forever," she observes, "or find some way to let go."

Still, it's scary to think that she will only have begun the job by the time her baby comes, a mere few months in the future.

Beware, Julia. Eventually, someone will be watching you and counting your sins for a later day.

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