CHILDREN.Lillian Hammer...


December 22, 1991|By GERRI KOBREN THE MOON BY WHALE LIGHT. Diane Ackerman. Random House. 240 pages. $20. | GERRI KOBREN THE MOON BY WHALE LIGHT. Diane Ackerman. Random House. 240 pages. $20.,LOS ANGELES TIMES THE DUCHESS. Jude Devereaux. Pocket Books. 316 pages. $21.


Lillian Hammer Ross;

illustrations by Mary Morgan.

Jewish Publication Society.

26 pages. $16.95.

There's a universal theme in this gently written and beautifully illustrated book, which looks at the immigrant experience from the other side of the ocean. Yes, it's about hope, and joy, and a better life; and the characters are Jewish. But what it's really about is the pain of separation and the special loneliness of the people, of any nationality or ethnicity, left behind.

Easily accessible to the second- or third-grade reader, the story tells of an elderly woman, Grandma Leah, who lives on in an old country village after her children have gone to America. Although they write to her often, it's as if they've been changed to paper; they are, she says, only the letters they send her, which she's saved in a little box.

Leah's great-niece, Chava, who lives next door with her parents, takes the language literally; she is afraid of turning into paper, too. But Leah, with the child in her lap, explains. Finally, a letter comes from America with two tickets and instructions that Chava should come along with Leah to the new country. The little girl is overjoyed.

And saddened: As the wagon pulls away from the village, Chava looks back at her mother, clutching Leah's little box, and realizes she is about to become their paper child. Diane Ackerman is right: Few people have the opportunity she had, to travel to Antarctica and study penguins and other animals in the wild. Luckily, anyone with the price of her new book can experience the next best thing, which is Ms. Ackerman's vivid prose. She is a staff writer at the New Yorker, where shorter versions of her four essays appeared -- where she is a "nature writer," a label that amuses her because it implies the existence of a world outside of nature.

We get to meet George Campbell, 70-year-old head of the Southwest Florida Regional Alligator Association and a man whose affection for crocodilians dates back to the days when he kept 40 of them in his basement in suburban Detroit. We trail after Roger Payne, who for decades has studied, and recorded, the songs of the humpback whale. Ms. Ackerman is an astute guide throughout, a writer who tempers a profound enthusiasm for her subject with an equal amount of writerly discipline, but is never above an emotional exclamation of wonder at what she sees. By Victorian standards, Clare Willoughby was a very modern person. Independent, curious and energetic, Clare is to inherit a substantial amount of money from her grandfather's will if she marries an "acceptable" man. In this case, acceptable is in the eyes of her parents, who also have plans for the money. Her situation is even more complicated because she must take care of her younger sister, who does not stand to gain from the will.

Clare is packed off to Scotland to marry Harry Montgomery. Although he is a duke and handsome, Harry is bland and does not have the same interests as Clare. He also has a tyrannical mother. But Clare becomes infatuated with Harry's brother, the defiant and free-spirited Trevelyan, who is very much out of favor with his mother. With Clare's ingenuity, things are never going to be the same at stodgy Bramley Castle.

There are plenty of areas to fault in Jude Devereaux's novel. Clare is much too modern for her time period, and the author does not capture the feeling of time or place. But despite these quibbles, "The Duchess" is still great fun to read. The strength of the book is Clare: Her vitality is more than enough not only to win over the Montgomery family but to carry the novel.


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