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Home alone

In Depression-era New England, a boy and his sister confront abandonment, poverty, and unwelcome truths

The Lost Mother
By Mary McGarry Morris
Viking, 274 pp., $23.95

A native Vermonter, Mary McGarry Morris has carved out a fictional territory that extends from Burlington, Vt., to Western Massachusetts and is as vivid and engrossing as anything in contemporary American writing. Her characters are mostly Catholic working-class people who are constantly struggling with lack of money and education, and therefore down on their luck and forced, more often than not, to live on the fringes of society. But what matters even more than their finances is the tangled nature of the love that binds them to their spouses, children, and parents. An ambitious writer, Morris is not afraid to tackle the hardest parts, and in her epic novel ''Songs in Ordinary Time" she proved that she can take on a whole town and bring it alive in the most affecting ways.

Now, in her sixth novel, ''The Lost Mother," she has narrowed her scope and gone back in time. More important, she has matured; her prose has a lighter, surer touch that will attract not only her fans but also those who may have found her earlier work repetitive and heavy-handed.

The Depression has hit rural Belton with the force of a hurricane, and Henry Talcott, the slaughterman who makes his living butchering animals on the nearby farms, has no work because, of course, many of the farms are being foreclosed. His wife, Irene, left him several months ago to take a job in the Massachusetts mill town of Collerton. Henry cannot pay the rent on his house, and he and his children, Thomas, 12, and Margaret, 8, are living in a tent on a neighbor's land.

Although they look as if they are living a summer idyll, free to run wild in the woods, the children are plagued by who they are and what they have lost. They see their depressed father as bewildered as they are, they wait for a letter from their mother, and when one comes to Henry, it is far from what they have hoped. When Thomas goes to buy a penknife and is hoodwinked by the store owner, we realize that this is a tale of survival on the most primitive level; with each subsequent turn in the plot Thomas will learn the helplessness of childhood, the humiliations and injustices of poverty, and also become aware that ''he knew things he did not yet understand." One feels the shadow of Steinbeck here and, later, of Dickens, as Thomas lashes out against all the forces that threaten to destroy his family.

Much of the story is told from Thomas's point of view, and Morris handles it brilliantly. We feel Thomas's ambivalence and confusion. Has his mother left because his baby brother, Jamie, died and she is still angry at his father for coming home late on that fateful night? Or has she left to earn money so they can go back to their old house or, perhaps even better, start a new life in Collerton? Or is she gone forever, because ''he wasn't a good boy, good son, good brother, good anything. If he had been his mother never would have left"? While Thomas seesaws between despair and hope, neighbors try to help. Yet, as Thomas and Margaret learn, help comes in many guises: Some is propelled by true generosity of spirit, like Gladys Bibeau's, and some is propelled by blind selfishness dressed up as ''good works," like that of Phyllis Farley, who wants Margaret for her very own. Thomas becomes more rebellious as Margaret becomes more pliable, and there are scenes between them that make him feel even worse. After their father is tricked into breaking and entering and has to spend six weeks in jail, the children live at the Farleys', where they encounter further dangers. Finally, Thomas takes matters into his own hands, and they flee to find their mother.

Like all good stories, this one depends upon events in the past, and also on Irene Talcott's beauty, which diverted Henry from a secure future and which now confuses his son. For how can you blame a mother who is so beautiful? For whom you yearn so much? When the children arrive in Collerton after a journey that alternates between funny and heartbreaking, life becomes even more baffling. As Morris puts it, ''In a loved one's beauty, there is solace, comfort in its presence, and the hope -- no, the belief -- the certainty that possession of so fine an ornament might be sustenance enough. Here it was, at last, the object of all yearning." But instead of finding that comfort, the children face more troubles. Their mother doesn't work at the factory but lives in a dollhouse of a cottage and is visited every few days by Mr. Dexter, the owner of the factory. They are forced to hide and listen to strange noises, and although they play with the other children, they do not go to school. With too much time on his hands, ''Thomas sulked inside, drawing floor plans of enormous mansions. In addition to the ordinary rooms for living, his homes had rooms devoted exclusively to the closeting of shoes, the maintenance of tools, the storage of books. Shoe-Room, he penciled in tiny letters, below it, the Book-Room. In this rendition the Tool-Room was on the third floor. He drew a tiny square to indicate the sink where the gore could be washed from his father's tools.

'' 'Book-Room,' Irene said, looking over his shoulder. 'You mean the library, don't you?'

''He didn't know what he meant."

What he does know is that his life is getting away from him. Finally, one day he and Margaret open the door to Louie Dexter, and Irene is exposed, not only to Louie, but to her son, who begins to question all his ideas of who and what a mother is. When the children are forced to go to an orphanage he confronts his mother's immaturity and selfishness, her inability to be a mother, her astonishing lack of protective instinct toward the human beings she has borne. All ideas of motherhood are challenged in this story of how the children are finally reunited with Henry.

Although in later life Thomas thinks, ''That's what growing up is. That's what it feels like. Like being alone. And strong. Even when you don't want to be, or think you can't. You just suddenly are," we and he know that this was a devastating year for any child, and its excruciating details will stay in the mind long after we have closed this absorbing and wonderful book.

Roberta Silman's latest book is ''Beginning the World Again." Her website is www.robertasilman.com.

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