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Lisa Alther re-imagines the New World and its legacy in Washed in the Blood

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Historical fiction often falls flat when it reduces events of sweeping consequence to painted backdrops for trivial personal stories.

Cinema is especially susceptible. Steven Spielberg's War Horse struck The New Yorker as "a little daft: the war stops; the armies and trenches and hospitals are stilled," all so that a boy and his horse can be reunited.

The proportions of a new novel by Lisa Alther are askew in the opposite way. Her best-known book, Kinflicks, is famous for its dishy impropriety, madcap humor and one-dimensional characters, but only one of these features remains in Washed in the Blood. A living, breathing Appalachian past is peopled with generic mouthpieces for historical data, just-so stories and implausibly progressive opinions.

In what are essentially three entwined novellas, Washed in the Blood asks, "What is it to be white?" We track the fortunes of the descendents of Diego Martin, a Spanish hog drover abandoned on a 16th-century expedition to the American Southeast, where he marries into a native tribe, setting generations of identity crises into motion. Part 2 leaps forward to antebellum Virginia and focuses on schoolteacher Daniel Hunter, who is torn between his Quaker identity and his stigmatizing love for Diego's descendent, Galicia Martin. By Part 3, set in the early 1900s, the Martin family has split into two clans, one considered "white," the other "mulatto." This selective memory leads to soapy developments after a prodigal son from a taboo liaison brings the chickens home to roost.

Pardon the homespun figure of speech—it's hard not to think in animal metaphors after reading Washed in the Blood, where vines are like snakes, clouds are like sheep and mossy oaks are also like sheep. (Does it follow that clouds are like oaks?) One wants a simile to be like an Olympic discus: hurled far enough away to matter, but not so far as to brain a spectator in the stands. Alther's similes often thunk down at her feet, though on occasion one goes wildly awry, as when a beard is compared to the nest of a "messy" bird—a pointless distinction. Implacable and complacent, the most obvious nouns and adjectives march by in pairs. The calmly descriptive voice never modulates, so gory battlegrounds have the same narrative weight as peaceful forests. You never have to pause and work anything out, which could be considered a virtue. But I yearned for some antique spice or rhetorical quirks, especially in lieu of complex characterization.

With the possible exception of Will Martin in Part 3, we never have any doubt of how we should feel about Alther's leading characters, much less her supporting cast of rotten hook-nosed conquistadors and noble African prostitutes. With our sympathies so arranged, there's not much on the line. As if aware of this, the protagonists barrel through their narrow roles at full tilt. They suddenly volunteer their life stories, spouting helpful exposition that practically sags with invisible footnotes. Their convictions fancifully reflect those of modern liberalism. The pious Diego, especially, displays remarkable broad-mindedness for a teenaged, 16th-century rustic, acclimating to the New World's natives, pagans and sodomites with less culture shock than the average The Real World cast member.

Things perk up considerably in Part 2, when the historical repercussions begin to unfold. Daniel's dalliance between the socially acceptable Abigail and the forbidden Galicia also helps. It comes out of nowhere but at least adds some welcome human friction. We don't even blink at this Quaker's immediate sexual ease and—insofar as we can tell through the super-heated nimbus of discretion that Alther wraps around such matters—prowess. We're just grateful to feel some blood pumping through the story, which rises near to a boil in the final part, where the historical imagination peeks out from under the research.

Alther carves a redemptive path through all of this carefully staged hardship and injustice. In her reading of history, mercy and compassion echo down the ages as well as strife and prejudice, and ultimately prevail. It's an earnest, good-hearted book that adeptly traces the winding course of integration, as issues of race become issues of class and concrete things fade into abstract concepts. A few constants shine out like beacons in the flux: a ruby pendant, the name Galicia and a six-fingered hand, which readers of Alther's autobiographical Kinfolks: Falling Off the Family Tree will recognize as an allusion to the author's own family history. Washed in the Blood is clearly a very personal book, which makes it even odder that in it, genuine personalities are so scarce.

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