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HER OWN PLACE. Dori Sanders. Algonquin Books...


HER OWN PLACE. Dori Sanders. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 373 pages. $16.95. When we first meet Mae Lee Barnes in this novel, she has her whole life ahead of her. We follow this daughter of tenant farmers as she marries her childhood sweetheart, works in a munitions plant, buys her own farm, reunites with her husband -- fresh from World War II -- and settles down to what she believes will be a happy life.

But she is swept along by the winds of change. Her husband, who has had a taste of life outside the segregated South, isn't long for domestic life in rural South Carolina. He soon exits, leaving her to raise their five children and run their farm. Her children -- black youths coming of age just as public schools are desegregated and new ideas about sex and marriage take hold -- don't hold with many of their mother's conventional views.

Dori Sanders' first novel, "Clover," was praised for its imaginativand humorous look at the ordinary lives of Southern African-Americans. Here, she again has demonstrated a deft hand in sketching characters that are believable; the reader gets a full view of Mae Lee, who echoes the lives of so many post-World War II black women. Most coming-of-age novels begin when the protagonist is an adolescent and conclude when the epiphany of maturity strikes, usually somewhere in young adulthood. But Katherine, the heroine of "Midnight Lemonade," is in her 30s when she finally grows up.

With a less compelling or intelligent character, this might be exasperating, but novelist Ann Goethe has created a bright, amusing woman who has the misfortune to be born just a little too soon to benefit from the women's movement, and too far South -- Louisiana -- to experience a liberated lifestyle.

When Katherine marries Professor Eric Pierson, she is as much in love with his apparent worldliness as he is with her naivete. He calls her his "Elf Child," and that sets the tone for their inequitable relationship. After three children, marital strife and various dependency problems, she begins to become a distinct individual -- a struggle that, in its most painful moment, leads her to give up her children.

It is a testimony to Ms. Goethe's skill at characterization that the reader is always on Katherine's side. Well before the end of this impressive first novel, the character has become a close friend, and that friendship makes you eager to meet some of the other people who populate this talented author's imagination.



CHAUTAUQUA SUMMER. Rebecca Chace. Harcourt Brace & Co. 208 pages. $21.95.

Rebecca Chace grew up the daughter of a journalist and a poet, a girl who was destined for Harvard and believed that oysters grew on iced plates. But somewhere along the line she developed an obsessive fear of the mundane, and redefined higher education in an oddly literal way: She became a trapeze artist and hooked up with this generation's Chautauqua, a summer vaudeville tour of the Northwest led by the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

Her memoir of a single summer season is full of anecdotes about charming characters who drive the circuit in marginal vehicles and have a propensity for making up stage names for everything, from the performers to the dogs to the dishes they serve at dinner. Ms. Chace becomes Francesca Deviante at the drop of a spotlight; the man whom she calls Dimitri Karamazov throughout is her now-husband, Paul Magid. Ms. Chace chronicles their love affair as well, as a decade-long flirtation finally culminates in a romance that throws some members of the troupe's extended family off-balance.

Her prose style is breezy and light -- Ms. Chace flies through the air with the greatest of ease whether she's on the trapeze or on paper -- but sometimes she's too quick, too glib. Her world is so rich, it's hard not to wish for a more considered view of it.


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