, by Jon Hassler (Ballantine, $3.95). The hero of Jon Hassler's first novel is Miles Pruitt, a high school English teacher in a small Minnesota town. A bachelor, Pruitt boards with Agatha McGee, who has taught sixth grade in a Catholic school for 41 years. While Pruit may be the central character, as the novel proceeds we come to know many of the people who live in Staggerford -- the spinster McGee, who remembers meeting the poet Joyce Kilmer when she was 6 years old; Stevenson, who became superintendent of schools because everyone told him how good he was at dealing with Indian students; and Beverly, a student who has fallen in love with Pruitt -- and to know what they love, hope and fear. Ballantine has also reissued three more novels by Hassler: A Green Journey ($3.95), in which Agatha McGee, making a welcome reappearance, travels to Ireland to meet a man with whom she has been corresponding; The Love Hunter, ($3.95), and Simon's Night ($4.95).


, by Douglas Bauer (Fawcett Crest, $4.95). Ramona, the working-class heroine of this first novel, has lost her hand in a car accident. Men find her attractive nonetheless, a discovery that pleases her when she ups and leaves her husband, whom she once adored but now loathes in his present state as a shiftless drunk. Sordid as it may sound in summary, the novel is as well-stocked with lyricism as it is with pain.

The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love

, by Oscar Hijuelos (Harper Perennial, $9.95). In 1949, two young Cuban musicians, the brothers Cesar and Nestor Castillo, come from Havana to New York, where Cesar one day says, "Let's make a little orchestra, huh?" That orchestra becomes the Mambo Kings of the title. From dances, parties and weddings, the group begins to get bigger bookings -- dancehalls and theaters -- and even cuts 15 78 rpm records. But the high point of the Mambo Kings' career is Cesar and Nestor's appearance on "I Love Lucy," as Desi Arnaz's singing cousins. Now, years later, Cesar, his brother dead, sits in a hotel room, drinking and remembering, playing records of the songs the Mambo Kings recorded so long ago.

River Song

, by Craig Lesley (Laurel, $8.95). Danny Kachiah and his son Jack are Nez Perce Indians -- that is, members of the tribe that came closest to eluding its would-be white confiners. It's a proud heritage, and Danny wants to compensate for what he missed receiving from his alcoholic father by insisting that Jack learn Indian ways. This is a sensitive novel of filial love that also incorporates the raging action of a forest fire and a gunfight. The same characters appear in Winterkill ($8.95), the author's first novel, which Laurel has also reissued. NONFICTION What Are People For?

, by Wendell Berry (North Point, $9.95). Poet, essayist, farmer, Wendell Berry tends to be slotted as an agrarian, one of those back-to-the-plow prophets crying in the urban wilderness. True enough, but this labeling overlooks the all-important fact that Berry is a superb writer. This latest collection, for instance, includes several terrific essays on "regional" writers like Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, some good essays on the subject of eating, waste and technological progress and crisp, inviting sentences everywhere. Berry's sharp, no-nonsense prose and provocative writing make for very good reading indeed.

Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves

, edited by Belinda Hurmence (Mentor, $4.95). The oral histories contained in this volume were among those first collected as part of the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s, when more than 2,000 former slaves were interviewed. This is, of course, only a selection of the original interviews, and a selection from only two states. In them, former slaves remember masters who "would not teach any of us to read and write. Books and papers were forbidden." Apart from the obvious cruelties of the peculiar institution, this book also contains details about the slaves' daily lives, the food they ate and the clothes they wore, religion and games, as well as information about their lives after freedom.

Of Men and Mountains

, by William O. Douglas (Chronicle, $9.95). William O. Douglas apparently ran free and wild through much of his childhood. Written when he was laid up with a barrage of broken ribs suffered in a fall from a horse, this memoir covers the author's youth in Washington state and the importance of wilderness in his coming-of-age. Some of the reflections are sober, even preachy, but when Douglas relaxes and forgets that he is a Supreme Court justice (and quondam presidential candidate), he evokes the uninhibited fun he had on early camping trips amid the colossi that are the Cascade Mountains: "We pushed each other from logs into pools of water. We poured cold water down unsuspecting necks . . . Bedlam broke loose in the woods."

The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Federation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from its Beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1774

, by Francis Jennings (Norton, 12.95). Most historians stress the conflicts between settlers and the Iroquois and neglect the Covenant Chain, an agreement by which peace was maintained, trade conducted, and warriors recruited for the French wars during the period roughly from 1677 to 1755. "Contrary to legend," the author writes, "the Iroquois were frequently defeated in battle, by other tribes as well as by French troops, but their exceptional ability in treaty negotiations recouped their lost power." This volume is the first of two (the second will cover the period of the French and Indian War) in the author's revisionist look at the Indians' role as a buffer between the British colonists and their French enemies.