Picks and Pans Review: Crossing the River

updated 04/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Caryl Phillips

Sometimes history can be as simple as a voice and a voyage. At least that's the conceit guiding this sensitive novel about the African diaspora, which describes the lives of three siblings—Nash, Martha and Travis—who are brought to the New World as slaves.

Theirs are bittersweet stories, and they defy the logic of time to explore how black life evolved beyond slavery. Nash's odyssey, set in the 1820s, unfolds through his letters to his former master, a Christian who freed Nash to do missionary work among African blacks. Martha's fate leaves her destitute in America's Colorado Territory, an old runaway cut off from her only daughter. Travis becomes an American GI in World War II England, where he falls for a country girl.

Phillips brilliantly evokes the different historical settings, here through the detail of a slaver's logbook, there with Travis's English love griping about blacks as "toffee-nosed buggers." The author explores themes of remorse, abandonment and self-reliance with complexity and understatement. These timeless children are symbolic, but thanks to Phillips, history has seldom looked more human. (Knopf, $22)

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