Slavery at center of Tryon's historical romance

July 05, 1992|By Judith Wynn

IN THE FIRE OF SPRING.

Thomas Tryon.

Knopf.

626 pages. $25. "In the Fire of Spring" comes jangling and jouncing onto the scene like Cinderella's outlandish pumpkin carriage. Readers acquainted with actor/producer/novelist Thomas Tryon's historical romance "The Wings of the Morning" (1990) may remember that the Yellow Pumpkin is the name of Squire Appleton Talcott's splendid carriage and the most envied vehicle in Tryon's mythical 19th century Connecticut town. Nobody covets the Yellow Pumpkin more than Appleton's old skinflint archrival, Abednego Grimes. The aristocratic, land-holding Talcotts and the scruffy but powerful, sea-faring Grimeses have been enemies so long that no one in Pequot Landing remembers exactly how their quarrel began.

It's 1841 now. Twelve relatively calm years have passed since the hectic cluster of events -- seductions, mass murder, shipwrecks and secret kinships -- so lushly and lovingly described in book one of what Tryon, who died last year, had planned to be a trilogy. Nevertheless, "Rancor [still fouls] the air along the five-mile length of thoroughfare called Greenshadow Road that ran through the village between the two homesteads, where the winds of contention and discord hotly blew." The Talcott/Grimes feud has taken on national overtones in "In the Fire of Spring" with the slavery question firing up tempers this time.

It all begins when Appleton and two of his five daughters -- Electra (a fervent abolitionist) and Persephone -- pick up an escaped almost-white slave girl named Rose Mills while out riding in the Yellow Pumpkin one afternoon. Appleton and his girls are delighted with their daring rescue. But Rose isn't the poor, grateful fugitive that she seems at first. Back home at the Talcott mansion, Appleton's free black servants murmur mutinously over Rose, the uppity new parlor maid.

Within a few weeks, Rose curses out the housekeeper ("You is one mean ole cannibal"), starts a brawl at church when she sits down in the Grimes family pew (the servants' section is too drafty, and she doesn't like black people, anyway), and seduces the Grimeses' prodigal son, Sinjin -- in Appleton's Yellow Pumpkin, no less. The author has a quirky sympathy for this mulatto Cinderella, who is more life force than villain and nearly takes over the novel.

The liberal Talcotts decide to start a free school where black and Indian girls can get a good education. They pick the heroine of Tryon's earlier novel, "Wings of the Morning" -- scrappy spinster Georgie Ross -- to run it. Georgie protests that her homicidal maniac father has already made her the town misfit, but quickly becomes Pequot Landing's bravest champion of minority education.

The Grimeses encourage local thugs to harass the schoolgirls, and a fierce battle is under way. To Georgie and her friends, Pequot Landing is no longer a friendly town: Tar-and-featherings follow shootings, burnings and lots of rock-throwing.

Meanwhile, the hopeless, agonized romance between giddy, luxury-loving Aurora Talcott and hot-tempered Captain Sinjin grinds on and on. One itches to leave this dysfunctional duo and get back to strong, level-headed Georgie. Tryon appears to have been saving her for the last installment -- the book that he didn't live to complete.

For a transitional novel that doesn't really make a transition, "In the Fire of Spring" has much to recommend it all the same: a clever, leisurely plot with lots of early American period detail and mostly likable characters. Tryon's affection for his little New England Everyvillage -- even at its bigoted worst, even on the dreariest winter evenings -- fixes Pequot Landing in memory like the jingle of passing bells.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

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