MOST OF US will read about an earthquake in Central America, and our pity for the dead and homeless will hardly outlast our morning coffee. But if we happen to have a friend in Guatemala City, the same earth quake becomes an intensely personal event. One thing that good historical fiction will do is give us friends on the spot. It turns exotic places and forgotten dates into human strivings and feelings. We see at a deeper level what a series of events means because we have come to care about people who have lived through these events.

In 1892 the Western powers were greedily carving up the carcass of the Manchu Empire. The decadent Manchu rulers were easy to manipulate, and the native Han Chinese, dominated by the Manchu for 200 years, got little sympathy for their rights or wishes from the Western nations. Those powers had decided it was in their national interests to impoverish the Chinese and enrich themselves. Japan, which learned the lessons of Westernization in record time, was moving in for the grab as well. It is at this point in history that a slave girl hangs herself from a branch of the 300-year-old cypress tree in the garden of the Changs' ancestral home. Her refusal to be used to pay off an old family debt points to a larger truth. For, finally, although it proves nearly suicidal, China herself is unwilling to remain the pawn of her oppressors.

The death of the slave girl is the opening dramatic event in Bette Bao Lord's first novel. In Spring Moon Lord seeks to involve the reader in the history of China from 1892 to 1972 through the story of one family, more particularly through the life of Chang Spring Moon, a lively and devoted daughter of the Chang family. Spring Moon is 12 when the book opens and 92 at its end. The average reader will know very little about the history of China during this period and less about its culture or language, so the author has set herself quite a task. How is she going to bridge the gap from the Western reader's ignorance to the life of her story without destroying the flow of the narrative?

One device which Lord uses is an introductory section at the beginning of each chapter. This section may relate a bit of history, folklore, a family story, or a few lines of poetry, but each selection helps the reader to understand what follows without having to call a halt to the story while one of the characters or the intrusive author himself delivers a pompous lecture. (Mr. Clavell, please take note.) The selections are brief and are printed in a different type, so the reader doesn't confuse them with the story itself. Thus they clarify and enrich the novel without seeming to interrupt it.

The problem of language is not quite so gracefully solved. First of all, there is the matter of names. Unfortunately, Oriental names like Oriental faces do tend to look alike to the untrained eye, and there is nothing more tedious than a novel in which you can't tell the players without a program. In this book, except in the cases of actual historical persons, surnames, which tend to be simple, are in Chinese, and given names, which are more complicated, are in translation. Thus instead of calling the characters Chang Chun Yue or Chang K'ang Neng, they are called Chang Spring Moon or Chang Noble Talent. Granted, it's a sort of mongrel solution and results in some rather stilted name-calling--Fierce Rectitude and Enduring Promise, for example--but it does let us know at once who is doing what without having to flip back to check out identities.

Lord is less helpful when it comes to idiomatic phrases. Like anyone who knows a language, she simply can't or won't give up certain expressions. Often these can be decifered from the context, such as lao chia for ancestral house home. But when I read that Spring Moon pushed her cloth-bound feet into a pair of pink embroidered slippers and pulled on her "ta chin p'ao" and stepped out onto the gallery, I was at a loss to know what the child was wearing besides her shoes.

On the other hand, if Lord persisted in translating every phrase, I would have failed to hear one peasant say that a comrade was "getting hoo li hoo too!" Even though I don't know what it means, the sound is too delicious to be missed. I can hardly wait to accuse someone of being it, whatever it is.

People who think historical novels should serve up double portions of sex and gore may be puzzled by Spring Moon. The most tragic event in the book, one which harks back to the slave girl's death in the prologue, takes place off stage and is related afterwards in the style of proper Greek drama. This is typical of the restraint with which Lord has chosen to tell her story. When Spring Moon falls in love with her half-uncle, the scenes which other writers might feel the need to play to the purple hilt, Lord allows to occur behind closed doors. This disclosure may drive some prospective readers elsewhere, but many will find it refreshing, for even while Lord maintains her dignity and her distance, she does make us care about her characters. Often it is impossible to know what political side to cheer for during these turbulent times with members of the family on opposing sides or no side at all, but this is just what Lord intends. It is the survival of the clan that matters and through them the incredible endurance of the Chinese people.

Bette Bao Lord was born Chinese in Shanghai in 1938. She came to the United States in 1946 when her father, an official in the Nationalist government, was assigned to this country. Because of the civil war and the Communist victory in 1949, the family remained in the United States. Lord's first book, Eighth Moon, tells the story of a baby sister who stayed behind in China and was not able to rejoin the family until 1962. It is currently out of print, which is too bad because it would serve as a healthy antidote to glowing accounts of education in the People's Republic which some tourists bring home.

At any rate, I hope Lord continues to write stories of China. In a time when the leaders of our own country seem increasingly obsessed with what they define as "the national interest" and correspondingly grow callous to the rights and desires of people in other nations, we need writers like Lord who can create for us friends on the spot. Lord is not a great philosopher of history or a great social anthropologist or even a great novelist, but she is a good storyteller, and novels like Spring Moon might wake us up to the fact that it is ultimately in our national interest to learn to care about the rest of the world.