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Mae Lee Holds the Family Together

DORI SANDERS'S second novel, "Her Own Place," tells the life story of the rather ordinary Mae Lee Barnes with extraordinary skill and flair.

"The house was new, but an old person lived in it," begins the novel as the elderly Mae Lee settles down to reflect on her past.

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The only daughter of South Carolina tenant farmers, Mae Lee was a teenager when World War II started. She married Jeff Barnes the day before the bus arrived to carry him off to war.

While he was gone Mae Lee worked in the local munitions plant and scraped together enough money to buy a small plot of land. Though her husband returned safely from the war, he ended up abandoning Mae Lee and their five children.

The pages of this compact novel can't be turned fast enough as the years pass and Mae Lee holds things together through her inner strength and courage.

The book is filled with strong, tenacious women. In many respects, it's a tribute to the women who kept the rural South going while men were off fighting in the war. But "Her Own Place" extends beyond the post-war era, bringing Mae Lee into the present.

Sanders moves her vivid characters through the decades effortlessly, sprinkling humor through the pages.

Mae Lee ends up moving off the farm and into town, where her most entertaining and inspiring adventures take place.

At first, she and her friends pass the time sitting on the front porch sipping iced tea. "Through idle conversation spiced with gossip they reviewed the events of the day and the years that brushed their lives," Sanders writes, "exposing and hiding faults as if they were removing layers of paint from old furniture or doing a touch-up job on the town."

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But with the encouragement of her son, who was wounded and nursed back to health in Vietnam, Mae Lee becomes the first black hospital volunteer in Rising Ridge, S.C.

Mae Lee and the white upper-class wives who have always volunteered at the hospital teach one another a thing or two. As Mae Lee tells her chatty friend Ellabelle: "These people had become her friends, some of them. Certainly they occasionally said things that they didn't realize could be awkward and embarrassing to her. But it wasn't because they meant them that way. They didn't always understand. And as far as she was concerned, the job was to make them understand, help them to understand."

Just when it appears that this book couldn't possibly hold any more charming characters, Fletcher Owens arrives on the scene. Mr. Owens starts boarding with Mae Lee. And he, too, has a lesson to offer.

Like a ripe summer peach, "Her Own Place" just keeps getting better and better until the last page leaves the reader longing for more.

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