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May 21, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

Casting With a Fragile Thread

A Story of Sisters and Africa

Wendy Kann

Henry Holt: 284 pp., $23

DEATH, writes Wendy Kann, was background noise, a kind of "general death hum" during the civil war that began in 1966 when more than 200,000 white Rhodesian settlers fled the country, chased by guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe. Kann and her two sisters learned "not to think too closely about race," she admits in "Casting With a Fragile Thread."

In 1984, Kann left the country that became Zimbabwe to live and raise a family in Connecticut. In 1999, when she gets a call that her sister Lauren has been killed in a car accident, she is drawn back into a place, a past, a childhood suppressed from memory. Her efforts to ensure that 18-month-old nephew Luke is cared for (Luke's father is alive but somewhat distant -- "silence was his favorite punishment") force her to remember her disappointed, drunken mother, her powerful philandering father (who died when she was 15) and the family's strange relationship to Africa.

Kann isn't as funny as Alexandra Fuller ("Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight"), as angry as Rian Malan ("My Traitor's Heart") or as nostalgic as Elspeth Huxley ("The Flame Trees of Thika"); she writes from the perspective of a daughter and a mother, with a twinge of regret but not the gnawing homesickness of other writers cursed and fortunate enough to have been raised on that remarkable continent. The book's refreshingly crisp, un-cloying, practical tone makes you feel empathy for a woman who lost her sister in a faraway land.

*

Atchafalaya Houseboat

My Years in the Louisiana Swamp

Gwen Roland

University Press: 146 pp., $22.95

"ATCHAFALAYA Houseboat" is the story of Gwen and Calvin, two '70s back-to-the-landers armed with a copy of "How to Build Your Own Home" and a love for the Louisiana bayou who made a house from an old slave-built shack and a retired barge. Surrounded by cottonwoods, "silvery cypress," blackjack vines and all manner of creatures (egrets, copperheads), the couple swim and can food from the garden and take the odd job (mostly on riverboats).

We meet local healers and such unforgettable characters with larger-than-life stories as Alcide Verret, who "cooks two pounds of dried red beans, a gumbo with twelve squirrels.... and a twenty inch bread pudding" on days when he's not expecting company.

Gwen Roland, who split from Calvin after eight years and both moved from the bayou, recounts her swamp days. Looking at accompanying photos of the idealistic couple in the early 1970s, you can almost hear the sounds of owls, of trees bending in driving rain, of a distant outboard motor.

*

Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942

Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944

University of Oxford: 48 and

64 pp., $9.99 each

THESE little books, originally written with decorum and purpose by U.S. and British war offices, served as back-pocket bibles for many soldiers who had never left home before World War II.

U.S. soldiers are warned not to bring any ancestral baggage (particularly Irish). They are reminded of how much, by 1942, the British already had suffered and how tough they had been by tightening belts and fighting the Germans. The British are reserved, "not unfriendly"; they can't make a good cup of coffee and we can't make a good cup of tea; "it's an even swap."

Brits heading to France are told there is no more "gay Paree," that the French suffer from mental and physical exhaustion, depression and stress. Try not to buy anything, British soldiers are warned, or you will be taking it from the mouth of a starving child.

These reissued books reveal a strangely practical aspect of WWII. Many who fought in that war have kept the books their entire lives. Images from several decades of looking back float between the spare lines.

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