SINCE THE FALL of the Somoza family dictatorship in July 1979, the Nicaraguan revolution has been a growing source of debate within the United States. Much of the controversy has centered around the nature and goals of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the guerrilla organization which took power when the Somozas fled. Related to this has been the ongoing problem of shaping a U.S. policy response to Nicaragua and determining the relationship between events in that country and the turmoil in the rest of Central America.

To date, the literature on the Nicaraguan revolution has contributed more heat than light to these debates. Defenders of the Sandinistas have ignored or tried to minimize the Marxist-Leninist component of the FSLN's program, excusing their repression of domestic dissidents and blaming economic and political problems on U.S. pressures and efforts at destabilization. The Reagan administration and its supporters, on the other hand, have consistently exaggerated Sandinista abuses, trying to portray the regime as a puppet of Havana and Moscow and a principal contributor to the violence and instability throughout the region. In many ways Shirley Christian's new book offers a welcome departure from this dreary pattern of political polemics.

The first 118 pages of Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family are devoted to an examination of the rise and fall of the Somoza dynasty. The author makes no effort to minimize the sins of the Somozas and makes it clear that the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans of all social classes were anxious to see a change in their government. The author also makes clear, however, that most did not favor a monopoly of power or even a significant measure of ontrol for the FSLN. The triumph of the Sandinistas is presented as the end product of national and international revulsion against the Somozas, combined with inept U.S. diplomacy and a considerable degree of political naivet,e by the democratic left throughout the world.

The remainder of the book is devoted to a description of the evolution of Sandinista rule from July 1979 until the November 1984 elections and an analysis of U.S. efforts to respond to these events. It quickly becomes apparent that Shirley Christian has little sympathy for the FSLN and is convinced that its domestic policies, along with growing militarization and the increasingly close ties with the Soviets and the Cubans are the results of the Sandinistas' own ideological predilections and not the products of U.S. policies. In the chapters on the early months of the revolution Christian demonstrates the Sandinista leadership's Marxist orientation, its determination to exercise a monopoly of power and its studied efforts to discredit those moderate sectors which had participated in the overthrow of the Somozas, in part by "characterizing as bourgeois whatever the Sandinistas did not like."

In their determination to consolidate power, the Sandinistas soon broke with many of their original supporters and provided added support for those who had always opposed basic changes in Nicaraguan society. Christian is at her best in describing such situations. The progressive disillusionment of Panamanian strongman, General Omar Torrijos, the defection of the Sandinista hero Eden Pastora, and the murder of business leader Jorge Salazar are all cases in point. In none of these instances does the author try to make saints out of her subjects or devils out of the Sandinistas. It is clear that part of the problems experienced by Torrijos and Pastora came from the monumental egos of those two individuals and that Salazar was indeed engaged in active plotting against the Sandinistas. But it is also clear that there was, in each case, a solid basis for growing suspicion and discontent and that the conduct of the nine ruling FSLN commandantes consistently aggravated the existing situation.

IN THE LAST section of the book, Shirley Christian describes the problems which have arisen between the Sandinistas and various sectors of Nicaraguan society. She details the rise of the armed counterrevolutionaries, known as the Contras, and the impact of U.S. policies on the opposition, but devotes most of her attention to examining such pivotal groups as the Miskito Indians, the market women, and the Roman Catholic Church. The examination of the conflicts between the FSLN and the market vendors is of special interest as it provides illuminating evidence of the gap between Sandinista rhetoric and actual practice.

Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family is at its weakest in dealing with official U.S. policy. The book is highly critical of the Sandinistas and of the Carter administration's policies toward Nicaragua, but is also far from uncritical in its approach to the efforts of the Reagan administration to deal with the situation, observing that "the Reagan administration refused to address directly perhaps the most significant aspect of the Nicaragua problem -- the internal policies of the FSLN." While somewhat sympathetic to the aims of the Contras, the author notes that "they came to be seen as mercenaries because of the way they were used by the United States." But the book offers no firm guidelines for formulating a more effective policy. The conclusion offers only platitudinous exhortations that the United States "cannot let a situation reach a point that demands black and white decisions about national security and national conscience" and "should not allow itself to fall into the trap of having to accept, in an area as closely tied to it as Central America either a repressive right-wing dictatorship . . . or a repressive left-wing dictatorship." But there are no indications of how such circumstances are to be avoided or of what policy options are left open once a situation has developed to the point currently existing in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family will leave most readers with feelings of frustration and confusion. It will anger Sandinista supporters while providing little comfort for admirers of current U.S. policies in Central America. Such reactions are, perhaps, inevitable in a volume which strives to present the full complexity of a highly controversial modern revolution. Shirley Christian's work has numerous flaws, a discernible bias and a lack of solutions, but it is still the best work to date on the Sandinistas. It deserves a serious reading from all those interested in Central America or in the seemingly endless dilemma of trying to formulate U.S. policy responses to the ideological fury of contemporary revolutions.