By Nancy Rawles
Crown, 176 pp., $19.95
This touching novel performs an act of literary mirroring as a former slave, Sadie Watkins, describes for her granddaughter the horrors of life under slavery and reveals her longing for the only man she ever truly loved, her Jim. Loving Sadie but loving freedom more, Jim ran away from his owner, Miss Watson, and escaped down the Mississippi along with another runaway, a scruffy white boy called Huckleberry.
In an afterword Nancy Rawles says, ''I think 'Huckleberry Finn' is Twain's fantasy about what might have been in a world more humane than the one he grew up in." Rawles's imagination makes no similar escape into fantasy. Her novel is not about Jim but about those he left behind, who had to go on suffering the cruel toil and the horrific abuses of slavery. Allowed no hopeful future for herself or her children, sold away from her, Sadie drew strength from what little she had kept from her African past: a knife, a bowl, her knowledge of spells and cures.
Twain's novel is only the jumping-off place for ''My Jim." Rawles's inspiration is not the 19th-century American literary canon but its African-American counterpart, the slave narratives and oral histories, a tragic chorus into which Sadie's fictional voice -- mournful, proud, defiant -- blends seamlessly.
By Bill Hayes
Ballantine, 290 pp., illustrated, $23.95
Five quarts, give or take, is the amount of blood we contain, making the rounds of our veins and arteries, trading in its used cells for new ones every few weeks, or even hours, in its faithful mission of keeping us alive.
Part memoir, part social history, with just enough science in the mix for respectability, this intriguing ''personal and natural history of blood" roams at leisure from mythology to medical research and from Queen Victoria to Dracula, touching down wherever the author, Bill Hayes, finds a point of interest, direct or oblique, in pursuit of the topic at hand -- blood as substance, blood as metaphor.
Blood figured as a fascinating mystery in Hayes's youth as an altar boy well schooled in the meaning of communion and as younger brother to four sisters, keepers of elusive female secrets. And since Hayes is a gay man, residing in San Francisco, whose longtime companion is living with AIDS, blood -- never entirely out of sight or out of mind -- is practically a third member of his household. If, in ''Five Quarts," he tells us at least as much about himself as about his ostensible subject, it is entirely by design, and very neatly done.
Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World
By Wole Soyinka
Random House, 176 pp., paperback, $12.95
When a Nobel Prize winner speaks, we are inclined to listen. In ''Climate of Fear," Wole Soyinka, 1986 Nobel laureate honored for literature, and no doubt also for his imprisonment by the Nigerian regime he dared to criticize, addresses in the lectures collected here the world of terrorism and fear of terrorism full-blown since Sept. 11, though hardly unknown in any quarter of the globe before that infamous date.
There are no innocents: A once-unthinkable corollary to the tenets of mid-20th-century radicalism has become the credo of the disenfranchised, of ''quasi-states," of extremists of any and all persuasions with a will to wield power. A confirmed modernist, Soyinka faults religion -- some more than others. A confirmed internationalist, he faults the United States, in particular its president, for squandering its stature and stooping rhetorically to the level of the fanatics: ''I am right; you are dead."
So what solutions does Soyinka propose? Engage in dialogue, not monologue. Recognize the dignity of others. Trust in the United Nations. In other words, for all the sententiousness of his presentation, he has little more to suggest than the rest of us.
Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.