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And Their Souls Shall Dance : FICTION : WE ARE GATHERED HERE, By Micah Perks (St. Martin's Press: $22.95; 289 pp.)

February 18, 1996|Erin J. Aubry | Erin J. Aubry is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer

Serene as the surface of this novel appears at times, "We Are Gathered Here" is nothing short of a woman's manifesto. It addresses an astonishing array of issues--independence, marriage, work, female companionship, goddess worship, pregnancy, abortion, emotional repression, sexual abuse--all in a tightly woven story that is as fanciful as it is grimly real.

The story takes place in 1882, in a rural mining town in upstate New York--about as far away from progressive thinking as you can imagine. But for the imaginative Micah Perks, this setting is a frontier; her ostensibly barren world is in fact a hothouse of ideas and passion that in time compels everyone, even the impoverished miners, to uncurl their spirits and blossom.

And blossom they do, potent and thick as the bloodroot, foxglove and other abundant flora that blanket the modest town of Hammondville in the spring. Feminist leanings aside, this is a wonderful piece of writing: stylistically lush, breathless and clearheaded all at once, exactly like the book's two key characters, who stand poised together, heroically uncertain on the brink of womanhood and maturity.

Miss Regina Hammond Sartwell, during a visit to the mining town run by her uncle, attempts suicide by leaping from the third floor of the general store. She fails ("I'm not dead, am I?" she mutters on the cold ground. "Damn!") and is carried off to her uncle's elegant digs outside of town to recuperate. Perpetually fitful Regina demands the services of Olive Honsinger, a young Hammondville woman who was part of the crowd that watched her fall and with whom she made brief but electric eye contact.

Olive is a kind and gentle sort, resigned to her station in life but observant and full of vague dreams about better living. She approaches her job as nursemaid with trepidation--why would such a fine lady want to engage her services?--but she is curious, and more than a little hungry for the $2-a-week wage.

Thus begins Olive's enduring friendship with Regina, and a feverish journey to the center of herself in which she uncovers a strength and fire that finally live up to her trademark reddish-orange curls. Olive finds that, like the strong-willed epileptic Regina, she too is an outcast who must ultimately discover her own path to happiness. She and Regina struggle up roads more often together than apart, facing down demons of ignorance and repression and cultivating dreams of escaping to neutral ground--rooms of their own, so to speak--in this case, a house in Geneva, Switzerland, that Regina tries to secure through wealthy friends abroad.

The newfound freedom, from Regina's opulent clothes to their plans of secretly visiting a band of Gypsies, is often too much for the provincial Olive. She grows fearful and begins retreating to the threadbare simplicity of her marriage to the Swedish miner Ren and to the weary but ever-open arms of her mother. But Regina's lure is too powerful, her feistiness and forward thinking too close to Olive's own.

This story is potentially sentimental stuff, particularly given its Edwardian trappings, but Perks' sly, appreciative eye keeps it fresh and involving throughout. The author has a gift of taking on types--spoiled rich girl, tight-lipped housekeeper, dusty-souled miner--and fleshing them out in leisurely fashion, peeling away thick skin chapter after chapter to reveal the ripe fruit underneath.

Though the book raises weighty issues, it wisely makes them incidental to its central story about the mysterious, magnanimous nature of friendship, love and human bonding; thus, humor is as vital and poetic an element in "We Are Gathered Here" as the cycle of seasons. When prickly Regina loses her virginity to Ren's brother, Magnus, in an open field, the scene is both tender and unromantic, and entirely comical.

Yet pain also is all over this story: in Regina's seizures, in Olive's near-frozen feet trudging though the snow, in children lost to death. But in the context of this tale, pain has a full-blown, robust quality that drives people to greater lengths for relief or acceptance. This is a book that reaches across more than 100 years of difference between its time and ours to affirm an eternal human need for love, with not a whit of energy lost in the translation.

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