BOOK REVIEW / What a swell necktie party that was: 'Feather Crowns' - Bobbie Ann Mason: Chatto & Windus, 15.99

FOLK IN rural America approach the start of the 20th century in fear and trembling - for them it isn't just the fin de siecle, it's the fin de everything. An apocalyptic floorshow is expected to mark the century's turn. Multitudes of the faithful have descended on Reelfoot Lake, site of terrible earthquakes in 1811 and 1812. Does the Lord have the same in store for them now? Among this tremulous gathering are two young women, Christie and Amanda, who have taken time off from husbands and families - the Wheeler clan of Hopewell, Kentucky - to pray for salvation in the event of this dread phenomenon.

And, as the new century dawns, a phenomenon is what the Hopewell community gets. Happily, it's not an earthquake, either. Following a hellish pregnancy (and fearing God knows what) Christie at last gives birth to quintuplets - the first recorded instance of such in America - to go with the three children she already has. The sound of jaws dropping can be heard throughout the town. As Amanda's husband Wad (as in 'tight-wad') ungallantly describes it, 'she done dropped a litter, like a sow and a gang of pigs'.

Soon a steady cavalcade of townsfolk and well-wishers is beating a path to the Wheeler household, eager to eyeball the five 'little-bitty' infants in their makeshift crib. The Hopewell Chronicle proudly reports the miracle, and the procession turns into a stampede. Christie and her husband, James, suddenly find themselves national celebrities as their home is swamped by journalists and doctors. Trains make special stops every day to offload curiosity-seekers from all over the States.

Fuelled on downhome bonhomie and small-town bustle, the first half of Feather Crowns at times feels a shade too cosy. Oh God, you think, not another chess pie, not more boiled custard. Yet its bright beginning is essential to the book's patient and highly effective design. One minute we seem to be stuck in back-to-back episodes of Little House on the Prairie - death by gingham - the next we are overwhelmed by a tragic saga of loss and disillusionment.

Mason confidently assumes that the quotidian stuff of farming life - the milking, the tobacco cutting, the family hoedown - can be worked into the fabric of the story, not simply as an 'authentic' background but as a wellspring of motivation. She manages this in much the same way as Jane Smiley did in her great novel A Thousand Acres. There is something sturdy and rough-hewn even in the language: words such as 'bumfuzzled', 'clabber', 'goozle', 'screaking', and speeches like 'Wad'll be bellering like a scrub bull in a canebrake during cocklebur season if he don't get his cornbread made just so'. What that sounds like is anybody's guess.

Just as you're starting to wonder if the novel is a well-wrought hymn to childbirth and rural togetherness, Mason springs a cruel surprise: the fate of the quintuplets changes the whole direction of the story. What seemed to be - what was - a blessing proves in time to be a bane; Christie and James, dazed with grief and guilt-ridden by debt, reluctantly agree to accompany their 'phenomenon' on a countrywide tour.

Feted as an educational trip by a shifty impresario, the reality of the Wheelers' experience - a humiliating round of freak shows and carnivals - undermines their faith in providence and, eventually, in each other. Christie tries to face off the gawping crowds with icy disdain, but the power of human curiosity proves indifferent and unshakeable.

The pathos of her situation is affectingly expressed in a scene where a woman from yet another madding crowd comes forward and offers Christie a picture of 'a little girl with curled hair and a large hair bow, lying with her doll on a bed. The woman's sorrow crashed into Christie's own like trains head on'.

Later, the exhausted couple arrives in Birmingham, Alabama, where some raucous street party is in progress. This, it transpires, is the aftermath of 'a swell necktie party', otherwise known as a hanging. The occasion makes explicit what the book has been nudging us towards - there is nothing so grotesque or repellent that a crowd will not pay for the privilege of looking at.

If Feather Crowns has a flaw it's the absence of a satisfactory denouement. Mason deals with the fate of the Wheeler clan in an epilogue delivered by Christie, now a nonagenarian, to one of her grandchildren; it's a perfunctory precis where one might have hoped for some climactic scene of recognition, or rejection. Did the author feel the book, a substantial 450 pages, had become too long? If so, she needn't have worried: the narrative stitching is so swift and dexterous that the pages melt by.

Impressive too is Bobbie Ann Mason's refusal to present a facile opposition between pastoral harmony and urban rapacity: in this book the fault lies with money-grubbing farmers as much as business vultures. Turn-of-the- century America may have escaped celestial wrath, but as Feather Crowns makes apparent, miracles have a way of reclaiming their gift.

Extract

When she woke up again, all their names were clear in her mind. She had dreamed the names of the last three babies, but the story of the dream had faded. The babies were all lying beside her, sleeping, nearly motionless, their tiny breaths barely discernible.

James Lake was the oldest, the one with the large full mouth that made her see the red-pink of a rooster's comb.

Emily Sue, from the feel of her, was stout, with wisps of brown hair that would be curly, she thought. Emily for one sister, Susan for another.

John Wilburn, the one who made her think of hot biscuits breaking in half. Mollie, the yellow of sunlight and corn.

And Minnie Sophia, so still, a gray cloud thinning out into air.

The colors were shimmering frothy curains. John Wilburn's deep blue was the most vibrant color among them. She was still half dreaming. The reality of five babies kept startling her, as if it were fresh news each time she remembered.

(Photograph omitted)

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