THE SEVENTH CHILD: A Lucky Life,' by Fannie Mae Baxter (Knopf, $21, 223 pp.)Every Friday afternoon for a year, Gloria Bley Miller and Fannie Mae Baxter sat in Miller's apartment talking into a tape recorder about Baxter's life.
Miller, a New York writer and photographer, had become fascinated by Baxter, who had been working as a caretaker for one of Miller's friends. For 20 years they would exchange pleasantries, but then the friend broke her hip, moved to an out-of-town nursing home, and Miller and Baxter rode the train together for visits.
On those train rides, Miller found herself entranced by Baxter's warmth and her ability to tell a story. Baxter told about being abandoned by her father as a girl in the South, about being the seventh of eight children and cooking for white families in town, about carrying the family bath water into the house in a big wash tub, about moving to Harlem because it seemed like an exciting place.
She spoke of her family and their trials, her days playing saxophone in an all-girl band and her mother, whom she still missed years after her death.
Miller, who had previously written about wine, suggested that Baxter put all her stories on paper. Baxter balked at first but slowly came to like the idea of being an author.
The result is "The Seventh Child: A Lucky Life," a rambling story of a simple woman's life -- simple, but not stupid. In fact, Baxter is quite wise and very funny.
"I don't love you if you are dead, because I can't do anything for you," writes Baxter. "You can't hear anything I say. You can't feel anything. Now you might say if somebody died in my family and I'm not doing any crying, she must've been an awful sister. Because I do not cry over no dead people. I loved them when I could love them."
That was the precise moment in the book when I started to get it. Up until that point -- nearly midway through the book, in fact -- I was losing faith that Baxter could ever catch and keep my attention. What didn't appeal to me has enthralled reviewers elsewhere, which is the utter randomness of Baxter's ramblings. There isn't always even an attempt to place the events in chronological order. Baxter talks about her early years (she was born in rural South Carolina in 1923), then comes back to repeat a few of the anecdotes later on. She ruminates on subjects just beyond the point of comfort. The book is obviously a transcript of a spoken conversation, and if there was editing done, it is hard to see Miller's hand in there at all.
But once I got past looking for the narrative theme, the book slowly grew on me. I came to enjoy the tart sweetness of Baxter (who once quit a job because the factory foreman told her to keep her elbows off the table). She quotes Moms Mabley and Billie Holiday, but her best stuff is her own composition.
"I was just down-to-earth and I got along fine. I'm my own person, that's what it is, and I'm still moving."
Baxter is not an ordinary person, and this is not an ordinary book.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service