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Small town the setting for big issues

"Life Is Short but Wide" by J. California Cooper; Doubleday (317 pages, $24.95)

It's impossible to resist J. California Cooper's slow and easy writing style; it seems to beckon, "Come, sit a spell, chile. Let me tell you a story."

"Life Is Short but Wide", a chronicle of small-town life in fictional Wideland, Okla., begins in the early 1900s with an African-American cowboy named Val Strong and his Native American brother-friend, Wings, who rode into town "on horses they had caught, broken, and trained themselves," looking for a home for Val's new wife.

Val ends up buying a large two-story house from "the last white person on that street," and the homestead becomes the hub around which story lines develop and eventually converge over the course of a century.

In her fifth novel, Cooper returns to her familiar technique of using the intertwined lives of her characters to spin out social, economic and even religious themes across the generations. Readers follow the trail of independent daughters, evildoing pastors, good-hearted neighbors, conniving lovers and, at the book's core, characters whose hard work and good morals seem to go unrewarded.

The book stumbles in its final chapters as Cooper takes long-winded diversions from the action to weigh in on religion or politics just as readers are rooting for the two main characters to step to the plate. Cooper also disappoints with her spunky narrator, 91-year-old Hattie B. Brown, by failing to reveal how Hattie connects to the myriad of characters. Is Hattie merely a nosy, moralizing neighbor, or someone with more intimate knowledge? Hattie's character repeatedly apologizes to readers for her poor memory, as if that is enough to get Cooper off the hook for obvious mistakes in the book's timeline.

Cooper's fans no doubt will overlook these shortcomings, as this latest work by the acclaimed author and playwright soars in so many other respects. The take-away message is as irresistible as Cooper's storytelling style: Love is blind, even when faced with gray hair and wrinkles.