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'Highwire Moon'--humans questing

Highwire Moon, by Susan Straight. Houghton Mifflin. 306 pages. $24.

Susan Straight has always been one of America's gutsiest writers, a storyteller with a civic purpose, a polyglot with an astonishing ear for how people really talk in places we hardly remember they are living. In books with titles like Aquaboogie, I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots and The Gettin Place, Straight has gone down deep into hard and hardened worlds' racially divided cities, the cloistered rural South, and resurfaced with tender but never sentimental tales of soul, survival, dignity.

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With her fifth book, Highwire Moon, Straight returns to multiracial southern California and the harrowing lives of migrant workers and half-breeds. She conjures colliding worlds and misplaced dreams, mothers who have gone missing and the children who have gone missing them.

At the heart of the novel lie Serafina, a Mexican Indian woman who braves her way from Oaxaca to California only to be brutally deported, and Elvia, the daughter she conceives with an American trucker, then loses in a brilliantly constructed scene.

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Twelve years after being thrust apart, Serafina and Elvia are searching for one another, imagining one another, needing to believe that the other remembers. They are, each of them, in a private crisis. The journeys of Serafina and Elvia cut the largest swath through this novel in which geography, like memory, both blesses and denies.

How Susan Straight knows what she knows about the communities she conjures is her own all-too-enviable secret. How she manages to run her poetic leitmotifs --the protagonist role of the color red, the blinding presence of a preponderance of moths -- through a tale of furious action is testimony to her talent. How she strings words together is her contribution to American craft: "An unclasped bracelet of pearls, lying curved and waiting for a wrist," she writes about the image on a screen during an ultrasound. "Then the bracelet moved. The baby moved. Elvia saw the baby's head, small as a ping-pong ball, outlined in ghostly white and full of frightening black."

In Highwire Moon, Straight is equally at home with foster care mothers and high school dropouts, with the coyotes that run the Mexicans across country lines and the vultures waiting at border stations, with the sketchers that stay awake on speed and the migrants who pull the fruit off trees in inhumane conditions. So much is wrong about the way these souls must live, so much is devastating and profane, and yet Highwire Moon refuses to categorize or judge: There is no evil here, just terrible options and worse odds.

Straight's characters are questing characters: they seek out anchors, they need homes. They need to learn whom they love and whom they trust; they need to learn the high art of loving. Highwire Moon is a mother-daughter story, but it is a father-daughter story, too -- a heartbreaking tale of the troubled, unstable American trucker who loves his disaffected daughter above all and cannot find a way to keep her.

I found myself in the grip of this book. I finished it in tears. Finished it certain that Susan Straight has not merely told a riveting story; she has also told the truth. Literature isn't only literature sometimes. It can also be our politics. It can press us up close against distant lives and demand our most loving attention.

Beth Kephart is the award-winning writer of A Slant of Sun and Into the Tangle of Friendship. She is at work on a book about El Salvador.


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