THE NIGHT TRAVELLERS. Elizabeth Spencer. Viking.
366 pages. $21.95. Elizabeth Spencer creates vivid, sympathetic and complex characters within a story that moves and is moving. Using language that expands the reader's sensibilities and imagination, she reveals a less-than-perfect world that refuses to surrender to its darker nature.
In her most recent novel, "The Night Travellers," Ms. Spencer's stage is North Carolina and Montreal during the Vietnam War years. Mary Kerr Harbison and her husband, Jefferson Blaize, are forced to live as fugitives because of Jeff's vehement stand against the war.
Jeff, an intellectual radical, writes front-line reports for an underground newspaper about the realities the U.S. government hiding from its public. He and his idol, Ethan Marbell, a brilliant former Washington bureaucrat, passionately speak and act against nuclear arms and the killing in Vietnam. They are driven to promoting and honoring life of all sorts.
Mary is pure artist, using her dancer's gift to express life's fragile beauty and strong truths. She often choreographs and dances works that celebrate the morality Jeff urges on himself and fellow humans.
In contrast to these characters, driven by a commitment to life and people, are others driven by selfish natures and fears. Included in this group is Mary's physically and emotionally abusive mother, Kate. Kate, of the perpetual white lab coat (she tests nuclear effects on helpless dogs), is the typical Southern woman, both fighting to be liberated and whining to be protected by her man.
Linked with Kate is Fred, Mary's stepfather. A self-made man with a hefty income, Fred uses his financial power coldly and deliberately to further his own well-being. He plots, while Jeff ponders. Fred's acts are spontaneous and ruthless with no concern for the lives of others, except as their destiny is dictated by his control. Even when he discovers his capacity to love purely and unselfishly Mary and Jeff's young daughter, Kathy, he is unable to allow that love to become his motivating conviction. Still, he must wield his power, destroying good in order to gain for himself.
The novel is separated into five sections, each with its own title. "The Home Scene" depicts Mary's childhood haunted by an ill father, whom she is made to feel responsible for (even his death) and her heightened conflict with her mother, who is never satisfied with Mary, competing, jealous and hateful of people and talent that belong to Mary.
"Voices From Afar" captures Mary and Jeff's escape to Montreal; Mary's illness and struggles with a new baby and unfulfilled husband; the cold and isolation of a foreign culture and language; Jeff's return to the U.S. underground and unsuccessful attempts to communicate with Mary.
In "Scatterings," Mary and Kathy are sent further north to wait for Jeff. Where are his letters going if not to Mary? Jeff never comes, but Ethan does. Mary and Jeff are torn apart by their own dedication, faith and struggles. Each is desperate for the other. "Reunion" celebrates a temporary but complete regrouping of the family: Jeff, Mary and Kathy. Finally, in "Decisions," Jeff's anti-war commitment compels him to return to the United States.
Ms. Spencer keeps her various voices contemplative and hopeful, rather than adamant and tragic. She does this mostly through juxtaposing metaphors of light and dark. Light is not always good, nor dark always bad. Mary hates the accusing light when it sends out "harsh voices: Unfit mother . . . Who's giving you the right to ask? . . . That's another one you've killed . . ." But she welcomes the warmth of light that brings truth, protection and hope.
Yet, Mary and Jeff, themselves, because of their exile and their individualism, are committed to the dark. "Travelling at night . . . It's the only way."
Ms. Boylan is a writer living in the Washington area.