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Southwest Passage : COPPER CROWN, <i> By Lane von Herzen (William Morrow: $19; 224 pp.) </i>

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“Copper Crown” is a lyrical first novel, one dense with magic and violence, grief and beauty. Lane von Herzen, a 1990 graduate of the MFA program at the University of California, Irvine, has fashioned real events and histories of her female ancestors into a richly imagined book, one that encompasses 20 years. This is an ambitious effort, and if it sometimes falters toward the end of that lengthy time span, the writing is so passionate and lovely that Cass Sandstrom remains a memorable creation.

Cass is the narrator, and though observant, dreamy, sometimes funny teens are often-used storytellers, Cass’ voice is unique. She’s a mixture of 1913 Texas farm girl and poetic chronicler of character and nature. “Allie was the only person ever made mention I was pretty for a fifteen-year-old who hadn’t got too much figure to her . . . . I just wasn’t full-extended yet,” Cass says.

She takes us on a tour of Copper Crown, Tex., with her throat full of wonderful phrasing and imagery. “In the evenings, my mama and my cousin Lily Mark rolled their black modesty stockings off their legs so I could take them outside to wash in the wide tin tub, along with mine. They turned in the cold, frothy water like six long snakes, open-mouthed and senseless. The dust floated off their skins and colored the suds a milky gray, and in the clear spaces on the water’s surface the fireflies reflected white pinpricks of light.”

Cass’ clear eyes and words are Von Herzen’s strength throughout the novel. In a few places, especially when Cass’ best friend Allie speaks, the voices are an awkward mix of dialect and fancy prose; sometimes metaphors and images seem less than credible for their too-careful placement in otherwise plain speaking. Allie says, “Her beauty stood before him even when his eyes was closed, so that her rich plum lips like the color of longing, and her acorn eyes, light and wood-grained and clear-seeing to the ends of the world--them things never left him.”

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But Cass is almost always a true-ringing voice guiding us through Copper Crown, showing us her mother, who has premonitions, her farmer father, and her sister Oloe and cousin Lily Mark. She is closest, though, to Allie, with whom she will share much of her life.

Allie is the daughter of a black woman who works for Cass’ rich Uncle Jensen. Despite the all-encompassing prejudice in Copper Crown that colors every facet of their lives, Cass and Allie tell each other everything. Allie is a fine cook, one who “touched a bowl of juice-dry peaches and drew them to a simmering pot with honey and lemon and bits of whole clove, which melted to peach heaven at the tongue,” but she can’t even enter a baking contest or cook in a restaurant where the owner won’t “tolerate nigra hands dirtying up his food.”

Copper Crown is populated with meek women and brutal men. Uncle Jensen fathers no children with his wife, but many with unwilling black women who work for him; he and his white companions taunt and beat black men, and those black men often exact revenge on women, too, their own and others. Even Cass’ beloved father loses his soul to punishing violence. Everyone is connected in a web of familial love and racial hate--everyone but Cass and Allie. As Cass’ mother says, “Somebody always picked up that grief like a hot stone from the fire that couldn’t be held on to, and threw it hard at somebody else. If you asked them why, they said they were just looking for relief from the burning at their hands.”

That grief multiplies when rape and murder become men’s weapons, and in a powerful section of the book, Cass’ old life in Copper Crown vanishes in a maelstrom of revenge. Men burn and kill, destroying houses and families. Cass’ cousin Lily Mark dies in childbirth, and her mother urges Cass and Allie to flee, taking motherless baby Ruby with them.

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In wonderfully evoked passages, they leave old ways behind on the road: “Next morning, the wind had disappeared itself entirely, but it had left its color washed over the land like a dye put in for permanent. . . . Our skirts, our skin, our falling-down hair--all of it was red-dun without seams or stoppings. Even baby Ruby was the same. Allie and me, we started to laughing so deep, we couldn’t decide whether we had lost our colors or found them for true.”

But during their brief time on the road and in the nameless, larger Texas town where they settle, white men remain powerful and brutish. The girls work for Mr. Skeet, a dining-house owner, and it is here that the narrative falters somewhat, after the author’s masterful weaving of event and imagery in the first half of the novel. Some characters and plotting seem forced as time begins to move along. For example, Skeet is portrayed as such an immediately menacing man that I was jarred by the sudden realization that eight years had passed in 20 pages, and he hadn’t acted upon his intimidating sexual threats to Cass. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t noticed Allie sneaking into the kitchen to substitute her fine cooking for Cass’. Baby Ruby is suddenly 14, and I missed the leisurely pace, Cass’ descriptions of passing time and people. A few inconsistencies surface; the letters to and from Copper Crown sometimes sound awkward, and Thane, a man who courts Ruby, changes in age during the course of the narrative.

Cass and Allie enjoy a brief, newly built happiness, with a thriving business that is rendered well. At times, with the letters and the details of women triumphing over men to become self-employed and satisfied, the novel echoes Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” But men, again, destroy this life. Sadly, Cass drives a wedge between herself and Allie by refusing to serve Warren, Allie’s husband, in the restaurant. A coldness develops, and more death eventually drives the friends apart.

By the final part of the novel, almost all the men are gone. Cass goes home to Copper Crown, and here Von Herzen populates the pages with spirits, those who keep Cass company. At this time Allie is sorely missed. Her character is needed to keep the story alive, and fortunately, reconciliation comes in an ironic twist at the end, when they find another secret that draws them close again.

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Even if the novel has flaws, that most writerly of compliments must be given to Von Herzen: Many writers will wish they’d imagined some of the intensely haunting passages in this book. Cass, watching Allie and Warren in a pond, sees them “water-logged and lovemaking, their pillow lips pressed together in a swallowing, silt-tasting kiss, their fingernails gone white and soft as wax paper, like the fingernails of newborn babies or spirits, fresh from another world.” The author’s creation of Cass, and her often stunning mix of the colloquial and lyrical, reveal a gifted new writer.


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