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Mothers and Daughters In Search of Themselves

SANDRA SCOFIELD is the kind of writer who has a real talent for diving past surface descriptions and getting inside the lives of her characters.

Scofield, who started her writing career about 10 years ago, has written five novels; her second, ``Beyond Deserving,'' won an American Book Award in 1992.

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Themes in her books center around mothers, daughters, sons, teenagers, older folks, and others who are ordinary people with ordinary problems. There are no sexy plots, or defining climaxes. Instead, Scofield is a storyteller who crafts realistic portraits of individuals and their relationships to each other.

Her fifth work, ``Opal on Dry Ground,'' explores the relationships a mother has with her daughters. The setting is the dusty west Texas town of Lubbock where 58-year-old Opal Duffy lives with her third husband, Russell, a kind, dependable man.

Russell owns a four-bedroom house into which move Opal's two daughters, Clancy and Joy, who are trying to escape bad marriages and start new lives. Joy's daughter, Heather, a surly, insolent teenager, also moves in.

Throughout her life, Opal has had to help her daughters - who have been in and out of failed relationships - make it on their own. Once again she is confronted with helping them find stability and purpose while coping with the death of her own mother, Greta, who has died in a flood. They are three women seeking a solid foothold on dry ground.

The story focuses on the everyday situations occurring in this emotionally chaotic household. Clancy, the staid, expressionless daughter prone to bouts of depression, has just been divorced from her second husband and is searching for what direction to take next.

Joy yearns to earn enough money from her job as a doctor's assistant so she can become independent. Heather is trying to weather adolescence.

The only stable women in the novel are Opal's two mother-in-laws - Russell's mother Imogene, and Elizabeth, Opal's ex-husband's mother with whom she has remained close. Older and wiser, Elizabeth tells Opal during a heart-to-heart session:

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``Children are a burden; you don't think about how it will go on and on, how you'll feel their pain,'' she says, adding: ``You can't make it up to them when they've been hurt, no matter what you do for them.''

In interviews, Scofield has said the issues of motherhood aren't explored that much in fiction. When she began writing, she noticed a dearth of books written in a mother's voice - books about what ordinary mothers think, feel, experience.

So she gets inside their thoughts in a language that is folksy, simple, lyrical, effective: ``They stand side by side at the sliding glass doors, studying the oncoming morning, while the coffee perks. Opal's body is so heavy, she wonders how she will move out of the house, to the car, to the sale.... She feels like a nappy fabric, attracting anger as lint. She is mired in dread, sticky as molasses. She could stay in this calm, clean house forever. Her own life is far away.''

Opal, who doesn't know when to stop mothering, must learn to fly out of her nest, too, and become her own person. She contemplates this new role toward the end of the book:

``It's always been more important to be a mother than a wife; when Greta was alive, it was more important to be a daughter. Now her mother is dead, and her children, like little blind rats, are stumbling out of the nest. Who does that make her, if not Russell's companion? What does it give her, if she won't take what he offers? Is it so bad?''

``Opal on Dry Ground'' is a skillfully written, pleasurable read.

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