Trainloads of rhythms in a tale about family of Kentucky quints

September 12, 1993|By Rebecca W. Boylan

FEATHER CROWNS

Bobbie Ann Mason

HarperCollins

454 pages. $23

Bobbie Ann Mason's latest novel captures the natural but eerie rhythms and hard-to-accept truths of rural America.

Spanning the years 1900 to 1963, this tragi-comic saga shows how one event in the characters' lives changes everything -- perspectives, relationships, self-concepts, choices and futures. This one event is the bizarre and miraculous birth of quintuplets -- the first so recorded in North America -- to a farm couple with three small children, raising tobacco in Kentucky.

The several rhythms in the novel provide intriguing images and ideas. There are bandwagon preachers with all the emotional answers. There are superstitions and fears that both empower and disable deceptively simple lives (the novel's title describes the bird-nest shapes that the feathers have mysteriously assumed inside the babies' bolster -- a harbinger of death discovered by the family nitwit after the death of the babies).

Then there are the twisted family ties, knotted by land, financialsocial and emotional dependence. And industry's new intrusive rhythm -- the train -- slices through middle America's farmlands, indiscriminately bringing in and carrying out change in the form of hopes and dreams, schemes and destruction.

The novel's central event, the birth of quintuplets to Christianna and James Wheeler, is the primary example of change. However, Ms. Mason enables us to understand how the ensuing challenges, joys, and surreal experiences resulting from such births are prototypes for the results of everyday changes that one encounters.

And Ms. Mason's expertise as a writer is apparent in her ability to create an immediately accessible, believable story that is simultaneously grotesque and fantastic. She removes the reader from too much horror by setting the main story in the early 1900s and by relating the results of five babies born at a single instance. At the same time, the story explores such themes as the emotions of motherhood and family life's ability to be at its most joyful while also at its most terrifying.

Ms. Mason writes:

"Christianna Wheeler, big as a washtub and confined to bed all winter with the heaviness of her unusual pregnancy, heard the midnight train whistling up from Memphis. . . . The train roared closer, until it was just beyond the bare tobacco patch. Its deafening clatter slammed along the track like a deadly twister. Christie felt her belly clench. She counted to eight. The pain released. The noise of the train faded. Then the whistle sounded again as the train slowed down near town, a mile away. The contractions were close together now. The creature inside her was arriving faster than she expected."

Christianna is aware of the train during the anxious joy of giving birth. Later, the train brings carloads of voyeurs to her humble but proud farmhouse in order to gaze upon her five tiny wonders. Still later, the train carries grieving, puzzled, but proud Christie and James on a 10-month journey, along with their deceased infants, embalmed for "show" to traveling carnivals.

Seeking to keep her infants "alive" and close to her, Christie tries to believe that she can retrieve comfort and normalcy in sharing her story and family in this way. Finally, the train carries Christianna, by now an elderly widow, to Canada to meet another set of quintuplets who have survived their infancy and are 10 years old. Even at this later date, the train has again carried her to a world of horror as she discovers that the Canadian children are being raised as a "public trust," under constant surveillance of psychologists, teachers, and the public who come to watch them play through one-way glass. The train continues to be a means of carrying curiosity-seekers to a circus sideshow, encouraging disrespect for the dignity and privacy of these children.

Throughout the novel, the train is a means and symbol of change, heralding the joy and gift of life even as it threatens this same life's self-respect and inner peace. Ms. Mason, within her wise and interesting story, encourages a renewing of respect for human life and a reexamining of sensibilities inherent to human nature.

Ms. Boylan is a writer who lives in Bethesda.

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