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October 05, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

The Voices; Susan Elderkin; Grove Press: 336 pp., $24

Some novels leave a mighty wake. Using a Greek chorus of spirits and the wind, Susan Elderkin's characters can be caught and lost between worlds. One such is Billy Saint, growing up in Australia's outback. His dad fixes cars; his mother is a loafer, a lounger. He takes classes by radio and spends most of his waking hours wandering in search of kangaroos. Elderkin's descriptions of the outback are haunting: "Behind him, the horizon slits open. A steely, yellow eye peers through."

The wind and the spirits watch him as he grows, arguing over his decisions and choices. Billy is 13 when the novel opens, and in his wandering he meets an aboriginal girl named Maisie. The wind and the spirits move these two children toward each other as if playing with dolls. In the larger world of Australian politics, government agents round up "half-bloods," including Maisie, taking them from their families and sending them to special schools.

Many years later, Billy Saint awakens in a hospital in the town of Alice Springs, strangely and savagely wounded. The doctors have never seen anything like it. He has been punished by the wind and the spirits and, he is certain, by a kangaroo he once accidentally hit with his truck. Elderkin is not long on explanation, but a reader can feel her human characters being ripped from the earth, a reader can feel the children being ripped from their parents, and a reader with a good ear can hear the screams of spirits as they are taken from all living things and banished into the dusty future.

*

Six Modern Plagues And How We Are Causing Them; Mark Jerome Walters; Shearwater: 212 pp., $22

There's something horribly juicy about curling up with a good book on plagues. The circle tightens around you as you read; it is clearly not at all safe to go outside. Mark Jerome Walters, a veterinarian, describes six contemporary plagues, which he calls ecodemics because they can be linked to specific environmental changes, all of them our fault. Thirty new diseases have sprung into being since 1980, along with a resurgence of older diseases in new, improved forms. Lyme disease, mad cow disease, HIV, West Nile virus, salmonella DT104 and hantavirus: Walters shows where they first appeared, who contracted them and why. Connections between environmental degradation and disease are much too infrequently made, so Walters has done us a great service by spelling out the links between our lifestyles and our vulnerabilities. He suggests "protecting and restoring the ecological wholeness upon which our health depends." Unfortunately, it's the last sentence in the book.

*

The Stuff of Life: A Daughter's Memoir; Karen Karbo; Bloomsbury: 256 pp., $24.95

Karen Karbo's hectic life as a freelance writer and mother of three in Portland, Ore., barely has room for emotion, much less death. But there it is: first her mother, then her stepmother, then her father. By the third mortal illness, her father's, Karbo is determined to be there for him, even if that means dropping everything and going back to the stifling Nevada desert where she grew up in his triple-wide. "I feel as if we are refugees from an early Sam Shepard play," she writes in her spicy style, "a family of malcontents bumping into each other in a trailer in the middle of the desert. The difference between us and the Shepard play, however, is that no one [in our house] hollered or held forth or waved a knife around out of sheer boredom." It would have been an easy call to wake up and get out of Boulder City, Nev. Instead, Karbo, who is "not a caregiver," is forced to learn how to care for her father while he dies of lung cancer. A Clint Eastwood lookalike and a man of few words, Karbo's father doesn't make that easy. I've read this kind of story before, and often it is more about the author and her epiphanies than it is about the dying of the parent/relative/friend. Karbo does it better: She actually gets to know a man she never knew before.

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