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'Insufficiency of Maps'

By Nora Pierce

Atria Books, $20

Nora Pierce's new novel tells of a life lived on the fringes. The world is seen through the eyes of Alice, an American Indian child, whose mother is an alcoholic schizophrenic.

The reader is terrified on behalf of this girl, but Alice walks forth in innocence, trusting the grown-ups around her.

When she and her mother are hitchhiking, well, her mother is just as apt to be naked as not. And when it comes to Alice's education, well, her mother never would have sent her to school if an aunt hadn't stopped by and insisted. Unprepared, Alice bumbles a bit during her first days in class, but she catches on.

At one point, her mother explains what it is like to be an alcoholic-schizophrenic-Native American, "Even on the reservation, next to all my old uncles and aunts, on the same land where the Shinnecock were born, I just felt like a leftover, like a ghost."

The title implies that whatever map Alice and her mother had for life seems to have been misplaced. Still, everywhere she goes, Alice is surrounded by people who love her — not well enough, and not always in a sane way, but they do love her. —Susan Whitney

'Tom Bedlam'

By George Hagen

Random House, $25.95

In this novel, some of the characters are intriguing, others are amusing, but others are flat. Still, there is a ton of action, and it ends up being quite entertaining.

The story begins like this: "It is quite possible that Emily Bedlam was simply a very good woman, but to her son, Tom, she appeared insane." After watching her be "good" for a couple of chapters, the reader comes to agree with Tom. We laugh out loud when Tom's mother appears to give in to the unpleasant world around her.

The setting is London, in the last half of the 19th century. The plot follows the life of a boy who has been abandoned by his father.

In the first part of the novel, Tom's life seems Dickensesque. But Tom turns out to be less resourceful than the lads that Charles Dickens created. Tom needs luck, and even then he is likely to take the easy way out. —Susan Whitney

'Sugarcane Academy'

By Michael Tisserand

Harcourt, $13 (softcover)

This is the inspiring little tale of how a New Orleans school teacher, Paul Reynaud, turned an abandoned accounting office in the small bayou town of New Iberia into a one-room schoolhouse. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, a dedicated teacher made the most of of an impossible situation — for two months.

He taught a handful of children of mixed ages to plant seeds, write in journals and understand nearby sugar-cane fields. The author, one of the parents and a journalist, assisted him.

The experienced Reynaud improvised, with no books or magic markers. He had no lesson plans — just fertile minds. —Dennis Lythgoe