By J. California Cooper

Doubleday. 231 pp. $18.95

"Family," J. California Cooper's first novel, is the story of four generations of a slave woman's family, yet the book is much more fantasy than slavery era grit. In fact Cooper's awkwardly told story is a fable complete with a moral to be found on the last page: "Cause all these people livin are brothers and sisters and cousins. All these beautiful different colors! We! ... We the human Family. God said so! FAMILY!"

"Family" is a fable of passing and miscegenation told from beyond the grave by a now-omniscient slave named Clora, who watches her children from above. In fantastic fashion Clora floats through time, occasionally falling asleep as 30 years go by, thereby allowing the narrator to skip here and there and to tell you in a quick paragraph that so-and-so had children and died, etc. As Clora puts it, "I do know we did start out bein black," but most of the members of her family look white thanks to promiscuous slave masters. They escape slavery to "live white," then have children by white mates, children who will, despite the usual genetic and social results, be white. Cooper even employs some romantic strokes one expects in a 19th-century novel -- sudden rescue by a rich foreigner, descendants who become European royalty, death dealt out to each evil slavemaster, a change-of-fortune baby swapping -- to contrive the odd outcome that a slave family, held together by a succession of willful women, slips anonymously -- and happily -- across the color line.

I should hasten to add that I don't believe any of this to be ironic or even metaphoric: Cooper's prose reads as deadly earnest, too earnest. While the events in the book could well have been used to describe the "browning" of the American family tree, they actually emphasize the "freedom" achieved by those who became white. In this way "Family" is like a book from another era. Early African American novels showed a similar fascination with the twists of destiny possible for mixed-race progeny of slavery, and attached a certain hopefulness to their prospects. On the other hand, "Family" is driven in true '90s fashion by a character who wants her misery in slavery to be compensated for in gold.

Clora's eldest child, Always, is an uncommonly enterprising woman who learns to read, farm, keep accounts and run a plantation household while selling produce under the master's nose and stashing the silver (no confederate notes for her). She swaps one of her babies by the master with his wife's baby and so ensures freedom for her son and slavery for the white child. (This is an old saw from slavery stories, usually told for devilish humor.) Of course when Mom later informs her privileged-birth son that he's black, he doesn't take it that calmly. She then blackmails the boy -- who is after the white family's gold -- into buying her a plantation (he takes the whole episode so badly that he later helps the Klan to burn out the blacks in the area).

Two of Clora's other children, Sun and Peach, who have escaped across the Mason-Dixon and the color line, return to rescue Soon, the ill-fated white child, and Apple, a grandchild sired by another mulatto son and another plantation mistress! Peach tells her browner mother: "You can't come to Scotland. But I can take little Apple with me and anybody else that looks white." Always says of her child, Sun: "I knew Sun had his future going pretty good. He would have money. And children. Little African, French, and whatever all the Master had been, but, white children, new blood."

I think the plot speaks for itself. There is a harsh Darwinian perspective here that is truly scary to read, couched in homey rainbow language. It's as if slavery, which modern Americans know very little about, has become a romper room for writers' fantasies, a long-ago place where strange things were possible. What happens to all those blacks unfortunate enough to be brown? That is something we know all too well. Like Always's only child by a black man, they stay on in the South, survive being burned out by the Klan, live through the Depression and lose a good deal of Mom's hard-won land holdings.

Of course if all of this made for a good story, or even an ironic dark story of African American caste divisions, it would be a provocative book. As it is, the book suffers from a flat first-person narrative that does not allow the characters to take life, a serious lack of information about slavery and a tendency to cliche: "But life and time just kept movin on, like it always does."

Mistakes abound. Cooper and her editor really should have decided whether Clora's father was the slavemaster, as we are told, or the "dark-skinned man" her mother chose, as we are also told. Mistress Loretta is wrongly said to give birth to her own nephew. In the summations at the end we find out too many events have occurred that were never mentioned earlier. And the typographical errors! In the haste of delivering this tribe from the burden of being black, both the details and the race were left behind.

The reviewer is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.