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July 06, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds

Names on the Land

A Historical Account of Place Naming in the United States

George R. Stewart

New York Review Books: 544 pp., $19.95 paper

"NAMES ON the Land" was first published in 1945 and has remained a classic in the field of onomastics -- the study of proper names and their meanings. George R. Stewart (1895-1980) was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in California and taught for 48 years in the English department at UC Berkeley. He is the author of several other classics -- "Ordeal by Hunger" (1936), the definitive book about the Donner Party, and "Earth Abides" (1949), a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel, to name just two.

"The deepest poetry of a name and its glory lie," he writes in this book (which he always claimed was his favorite), "not in liquid sounds, but in all that shines through that name -- the hope or terror, or passion or wit, of those who named it. The second glory of a name, as with Marathon or Valley Forge, springs later from the deeds done there."

The Nightingales of Troy

A Novel

Alice Fulton

W.W. Norton: 254 pp., $23.95

YOU CAN'T fake quirkiness; it requires soul. Been-there-and-back soul, an ability to separate the glib from the gothic. It requires a rousing familiarity with language, backward and forward -- the roots of words. Alice Fulton is a poet, a lifer in the locked ward of literature; here she is writing her first novel, late in the game. Boy, oh boy, was it worth waiting for! Four generations of Garrahan women are placed before us, blessed and cursed, saints and lost souls. "A woman didn't tell hero stories . . . only ghost stories," thinks Peg, the matriarch, born in Ireland in 1854, four years after the famine. Her daughter Mamie has four children and a fifth on the way when the novel opens. Mamie is in "a bad state of wilt," working herself to the bone on an upstate New York farm whose "little brick house was neat as the Dewey decimal system but meager and common as could be. We had windows but no curtains, rooms but no closets, walls but no wallpaper." (Fiction writers should be forced to write poetry for several decades before attempting a novel.) "The washing and mangling, blacking and beating, scrubbing and baking, the making of soap and babies had taken all the calorie out of me."

Words like "vamoose" and "rigmarole" and "hotsy-totsy" roll around like bright spots in that dark, early 20th century landscape, tinged with harsh weather and enough death and disease to make "Angela's Ashes" look like a comic valentine. Choking, childbirth, fevers, drowning, pneumonia were just a few of the causes of untimely death. Willfulness and piety everywhere. "My aunts were not modern people," thinks third-generation Charlotte. "Their house made you feel the previous century was still at large. It was brown as a horehound drop, inside and out, with mossy green shades on every windowpane. The parlor had some tintypey furniture under hand-tatted linen doilies and a wide-open Bible on a library table."

The Garrahan women meet their fates head-on. Through some sleight of hand, Fulton lets us know them from the outside and the inside, both. "Happiness," thinks Mamie, the mother you'd want on a desert island, "is nothing but God's presence in the silence of the nerves. And though my children were sleeping the sleep of the just, I half believed my unvoiced thoughts would reach them across that room full of twentieth-century light."

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