THOSE BONES ARE NOT MY CHILD

By Toni Cade Bambara

Pantheon. 676 pp. $27.50

"The terror is over, the authorities say. The horror is past, they repeat every day. There've been no new cases of kidnap and murder since the arrest back in June. You've good reason to know that the official line is a lie. But you sweep the walk briskly all the way to the hedge, as though in clearing the leaves you can clear from your mind all that you know. You'd truly like to know less. You want to believe. It is 3:23 on your Mother's Day watch. And your child is nowhere in sight."

I don't think it is overstating the point to say that had Toni Cade Bambara's rich and magnificent novel (which, sadly, is also her last; she died in 1995) been published a year ago, at the same time as Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, it might have been more than the city of Atlanta -- the city that smugly, though inaccurately, calls itself The City Too Busy to Hate -- could bear.

Perhaps it's better this way. Because now, paperback copies of Wolfe's mammoth book serve as backdrop to what Toni Morrison, who edited this novel down from 1,800 pages, rightfully calls Bambara's "magnum opus," a book whose ambitious scope exceeds Wolfe's, hard as that may be to believe. Using the Atlanta child murders (as the country agonizingly came to know them in the late '70s and early '80s) as her jumping-off point, Bambara moved to Atlanta because a seer convinced her that that was where she needed to be. For 12 long years, she was on the ground like the best of reporters, gathering nuggets of information, sorting out theories, keeping her mind and her ears open to everything big or small that came her way, and then marshaling it all through the filter -- the marvelously quirky, visionary, mystical filter -- that has always been the hallmark of her work, from her short fiction (Gorilla, My Love and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive) onward. If a reader reads a writer's entire work carefully, it is hard not to see the connections, the threads that make up the whole. When a character named Minnie Ransom (who is a healer in Bambara's first novel, The Salt Eaters) asks: "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?", it is a question that reverberates nearly 20 years later in this final book (begun in journal form, ironically enough, before The Salt Eaters was published), a question that Bambara now is asking of all of us.

The story revolves around the Spencer family -- Marzala (Zala) and Nathaniel (Spence), estranged from each other at the book's beginning, and their three children, a daughter, Kenti (who is 7), and two sons, Kofi, 9, and Sundiata, known as Sonny, who is 12 and missing, having gone on a Boys' Club outing in the summer of 1980 that quickly became every parent's worst nightmare. Bambara skillfully and deftly takes us inside the world of this American family (who happen to be black) and makes the Spencers (and their kin and their community and the city/society of which they feel a decidedly marginal part) come alive in the most messy and wonderful of ways. She is the sort of writer who takes no prisoners, who doesn't sugar-coat anything, and her book is the stronger for it. This is not only the flip side of the Atlanta that Wolfe brought so uproariously to the surface; this, more important, is a side of American life that relatively few white Americans -- as well as many middle- to upper-middle-class blacks, for that matter -- want to know or think too much about. And yet, and yet: This is a book that demands to be read, a book that would have benefited by being shorter and by not having the "b" of black unnecessarily capitalized, but one that amply rewards the reader patient and curious enough to undertake the journey.

Despite the bleak subject matter, the book is filled with memorable passages of levity (like a master chef, Bambara knows just when those are needed) and is completely compelling. What makes it so, to my mind -- and I believe the excerpt above demonstrates this -- is her unerring ability to zero in on and render the precise detail or moment that stops you cold, that forces you to face up to the fact that in matters such as these you can never, must never, drop your guard, that the proverbial coast is never clear.

And in the fascinating way that real life often intrudes upon fiction, it isn't. Not only do many actual characters -- Maynard Jackson, Julian Bond, Andrew Young, J.B. Stoner and, of course, Wayne Williams, the young black man ultimately convicted in two of the 29 cases of the Missing and Murdered -- blend in with fictional ones in Bambara's book, but also the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in September that Williams's request for a new trial should be reconsidered. At the same time, his lawyer is trying to raise enough money so that DNA testing can be done.

These are developments that surely would have pleased Toni Cade Bambara. After Williams's conviction, it must be remembered, 22 of the remaining cases were closed, and five still remain open. Those Bones Are Not My Child is not just a book that far transcends the bedeviling issues of race and class that we as a country continue to struggle with; it is a book -- Bambara's parting gift to us -- that will go a long way toward ensuring that her work, like the children of Atlanta, will not be forgotten.

Jonathan Coleman is the author, most recently, of "Long Way to Go: Black and White in America."