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From Dillard: a more tolerant, childlike voice

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An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard. New York: Harper & Row, 255 pp. $17.95. It's difficult to forget Annie Dillard's crippled moth.

It first appeared some 13 years ago, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning ``Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.'' In that collection of prose essays about the seasonal changes that occurred in her corner of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, Dillard also wrote about a momentous experience from her childhood. A friend had trapped a huge Polyphemus moth in a too-small Mason jar, and Annie had watched in horror one day as the moth emerged from its cocoon and tried - unsuccessfully - to unfold its wings. In ``Pilgrim'' she described how, once loosed from the jar, the moth ``heaved ... down the asphalt driveway by infinite degrees.''

Now, seven books later, the moth has returned. But Dillard now recalls that the moth was in fact ``crawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born.''

Three cheers for the moth. And three cheers, too, for Annie Dillard's changing perceptions.

``An American Childhood'' displays the kind of probing and prying that Dillard's devotees have always applauded as cosmologically inspired and that her detractors have put down as dense and enigmatic. But there's a new voice here - a perspective that's both more mature in its tolerance and more childlike in its lack of artifice.

``An American Childhood'' is funny, too, thrusting beyond the glimmers of irony and bright shafts of wit that have long been Dillard trademarks, into near-slapstick. Consider this recollection of the telephone training that Annie and her sister, Amy, received at their mother's hands:

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