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A rural farm family comes to grips with distant tragedy

Luisa Domic, by George Dennison. New York: Harper & Row. 178 pp. $14.95. The state of Maine has provided the setting for several acclaimed novels in recent years, most notably Carolyn Chute's ``The Beans of Egypt, Maine'' and John Irving's ``The Cider House Rules.'' Now we have George Dennison's ``Luisa Domic,'' a Maine-based novel no less ambitious and as equally -- if not more -- compelling as the aforementioned books.

Mr. Dennison is best-known as the author of ``Lives of Children,'' a celebrated study of alternative education first published in 1969. Since 1970 he has lived with his family on a farm in central Maine, a landscape that figures prominently in ``Domic.''

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The story revolves around an October weekend in 1971 on the farm of the unnamed narrator, his wife, and three children, all of whom lead remarkably content lives. Three visitors have come for two days: Harold Ashby, an old friend and famous composer; Marshall Berringer, political activist; and Luisa Domic, a Chilean woman who has just escaped from the infamous soccer stadium in Santiago where her family (and thousands of her compatriots) were executed by the military junta. She now is en route to political sanctuary in Canada.

Such a simple synopsis suggests that Dennison is writing more than a regional novel alone. Granted, the book is rife with the rural detail we expect from a homesteading author. Yet the power of this story comes instead from the fact that Dennison has not settled for a simple celebration of the joys of self-sufficiency. Rather, ``Domic'' seeks to confront the terrors that flourish elsewhere in the world under the same sun that warms this fortunate Maine family. ``There's such horror in the world,'' observes the narrator's wife, upon hearing Luisa's chilling story, ``and we're so lucky.''

This confrontation with a distant tragedy is skillfully managed in a series of juxtapositions that play the happy family life of the narrator against Luisa Domic's devastating loss. There is more here: an uncanny connection between Luisa and Ashby, plus a treatise on the nature of fame, as Ashby has given up his composing career to work with autistic children. And all is presented in a lucid, measured, lyrical prose.

W. B. Yeats once remarked that writers like his countryman George Russell or Emerson were hampered by an inadequate sense of evil. Implicit in this criticism is the idea that the artist must be at least aware of the entire human condition. An abiding sense of the evil that seems to threaten us all is the theme of this remarkable novel, which stitches together the separate realities of two continents. ``I went down a few minutes later . . .,'' says its narrator, momentarily overwhelmed by Luisa's plight, ``outside into the spacious, warm, brightly colored day, in which the terrors that people inflicted upon one another seemed so achingly discontinuous with the beauty and abundance of the natural world.''

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