CUPBOARDLynne BanksMorrow, 246 pages...

THE MYSTERYOF THE

July 11, 1993|By JUDITH B. ROSENFELD SISTER WATER By Nancy Willard Knopf 255 pages; $21 | JUDITH B. ROSENFELD SISTER WATER By Nancy Willard Knopf 255 pages; $21,LOS ANGELES TIMES

THE MYSTERY

OF THE CUPBOARD

Lynne Banks

Morrow

, 246 pages; $13.95; 12 and up This fourth book in the "Indian in the Cupboard" series is about Omri, the youngest son in his family. His mother and father are there when they are needed in his life or in the story, but generally, he manages to be private about his comings and goings. The cupboard -- an earlier birthday gift -- has been wrapped and carefully placed in the bank for safe-keeping.

When Omri opens the cupboard with a special key, small plastic "people" come alive. Now his family moves to an old home in the country, and Omri has new adventures. He finds a diary and a cash box that reveal the history of the house, his family and the cupboard. An old roof thatcher fills in some details. (A fascinating character, he appears because the story takes place in England.) With his information, Omri is able to meet some new plastic creatures, and new things happen in the present.

Ms. Banks writes convincingly of the daily life of the family, as well as the transition into the imaginary world of the plastic figures, which include a dance-hall girl and a burglar. When these creatures of the past talk to Omri, the conversation is entirely believable. The boy learns he can trust his father, and the last sentence promises more complications with the cupboard. If Omri changes events in the past, how will it affect

the present? Nancy Willard, award-winning poet and writer of children's literature, has said that metaphor comes "from an odd corner of the imagination." "Sister Water," her second novel for adults, shows just how odd. The characters -- Ellen, Martha and their aged mother, Jessie -- are visited by a ghost (Mike, who is Ellen's dead husband), a mystic (Sam Theopolis, hired to care for Jessie) and angels -- the angel of death, the angel of water and the angel of broken car grilles.

Imagine Thornton Wilder writing the Mary Poppins stories, and you'll have this novel's scope. The plot roughly is how Ellen learns to get on with life after her husband's death. The setting is a museum, which is also the Woolman Scientific Supply Co., which is also a home in Michigan. The importance of the setting is the underground stream that flows through this home's basement. The action occurs here, because this stream is a metaphor for life. It connects water to land, body to soul, people to angels and this world to the next.

The theme of this marvelous, oddly believable story is that connection.

DIANE SCHARPER

MALCOLM COWLEY: THE

FORMATIVE YEARS

Hans Bak

University of Georgia Press

! 626 pages; $34.95

In the epilogue to this first volume of a projected two-part biography, Hans Bak calls Malcolm Cowley "the Boswell of his generation," meaning those writers who came of age in the 1920s and soon thereafter. He argues his case indirectly but fairly well -- mainly because he makes clear that Cowley had a "chameleonic inclination to adopt the sheltering colors of his environment."

Though Cowley was best known, early on, as a poet and champion of modernism, in many ways he seems a creature of fashion, always managing to show up where the literary action happened to be. Cowley's good timing can be misread, however, for he usually played the role of observer rather than that of hanger-on, getting caught up in Dadaism and avant-garde magazines less from a need to belong than an overwhelming desire to construct a sturdy literary creed. Mr. Bak's subsequent work on Cowley is sure to hold engaging anecdotes -- Cowley lived until 1989, and wrote prolifically until his death -- but one hopes his publisher has already made plans to produce a slightly more abridged version.

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