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Book Review

Resilient Women Find Strength, Kinship in Their Common Foibles

BAD GIRL CREEK, \o7 By Jo-Ann Mapson\f7 , Simon & Schuster, 377 pages, $24

July 10, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What could these women possibly have in common? Ness is a 6-foot African American blacksmith whose last boyfriend infected her with HIV. Nance is a Southern belle who couldn't live with a self-centered journalist but can't get him out of her mind. Beryl spent five years in prison for stabbing her abusive husband. (Her kitchen knife didn't kill him, though;he slipped on spilled beer and cracked his head.)

Obviously, each woman is disillusioned with the male of the species. All have unresolved issues with their mothers, neglectful or absent. All have pets, which has made it difficult for them to find housing in an affluent semirural area that readers of Jo-Ann Mapson's latest novel will recognize as Monterey Peninsula and Carmel Valley.

Ness has a big black horse that she stole from the HIV donor. Nance, a photographer, has a big yellow dog. Beryl, who works at a rescue facility for birds, has a parrot who cusses like a drill sergeant. And all three have rented rooms in the house that Phoebe DeThomas just inherited from her Aunt Sadie, along with a 40-acre flower farm. That tiny Phoebe, who has heart and spinal ailments, should have gotten the land instead of the money miffs her investment-counselor brother, James. How can she run a farm from a wheelchair? She should let him sell the property to developers, he argues, and buy her a condo with plenty of ramps.

These women--the income they provide, and the work they do in the fields and greenhouses--are the solution to Phoebe's problem, just as the nurturing they give one another is exactly what each needs to heal.

Once that happens, new men, better men, enter the picture. A short but hunky UPS driver courts Phoebe. An HIV-positive gay man befriends Ness. A shy bookstore owner serenades Beryl, and James is moved to invest himself in Nance.

But even without men, the women are a resilient group, easily capable of pooling their talents to make the farm a financial success and have time left over for art, food, music, quarreling, making up and greeting each of life's surprises with the appropriate laughter or tears.

They create a mini-paradise in the shadow of tragedy, presided over by the spirit of Aunt Sadie and her "gardening journal," which we read over Phoebe's shoulder.

The women share one more thing: a common language. Mapson, whose five previous novels include "Shadow Ranch" and "The Wilder Sisters," could have given each of the four a distinct voice as well as a distinct personality. She could have made Ness talk black, Nance talk Southern and Beryl talk prison slang.

But she didn't because her aim is to depict their common life--along with a slew of minor characters and a wealth of information about plants, animals and birds--not the things that alienate them.

As it happens, while reading "Bad Girl Creek" I was also reading "The Cold Six Thousand," James Ellroy's look at the maggoty underside of American life in the 1960s: political assassinations, Mafia violence, racism, corruption. Every character is profoundly alone; every decent impulse is twisted and compromised.

It was a peculiar experience, reading both, and it made me wonder. Both novels could be called "realistic," yet the realities they describe hardly intersect.

Ellroy shows us the world as we fear it might be, Mapson the world as we hope it is--a world in which flawed people can be basically healthy, and even pain has a richness to it.

Is fear a better guide to the truth than hope? Noir fans would say yes, of course, but Mapson makes the contrary case skillfully enough to warrant pause. America, let's just say, is a big place, stranger and more various than we usually imagine it to be.

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