YOU AIN'T GOT NO EASTER CLOTHES

By Laura Love

Hyperion. 237 pp. $23.95

In 1972, when Laura Love was 12 and her sister 13, their mother, Wini, fashioned nooses in the living room so the three could hang themselves in order to join God. But first Wini instructed Love to hang the family cat, Sugar Plum, from the curtain rod in the bathroom. In Wini's ghastly delusion, no one in the house, not even the girls' pet, was to be left behind to suffer. In a wily twist of fate, Sugar Plum slipped free of her noose and sauntered back into the living room, just as mother and daughters were about to step off their chairs and into eternity. The girls tossed away their nooses, stepped down from their death chairs and hugged the cat. The sight cracked Wini's resolve. "And so it ended, [in] a reprieve," Love writes matter-of-factly from the distance of three decades. "For the want of a sturdy knot, the trajectory of our lives had once again been altered."

Today Love is a singer, songwriter and bassist who plays in a lovely, folk-funk hybrid style. Despite two previous CD releases on a major label, Mercury Records, she mostly has lived and recorded in the indie music scene. Her musical fame is of the cult variety, and this memoir is her first book. The story of a black girl raised by a mentally ill mother in Nebraska in the 1960s and '70s, "You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes" is a searing account of a childhood lived on many fringes: the fringe of sanity, of racial identity, of society, of personal safety.

It begins with a harrowing bang when Love was 3 years old. Her mother was sent to a mental hospital, Love and her sister to Cedar's Home for Children. This is one of Love's earliest memories, and it sets the tone for the disconnection, fragmentation and instability to come. When Love and her sister, both still preschoolers, next saw their mother during a supervised visit, Wini remained in an unreachable state. "When she finally spoke, she asked if we were her sisters," Love recalls in chilling understatement. The family was eventually reunited, only to careen from one calamity to the next.

Love paints a precise portrait of a complicated mother. Despite Wini's fragile mental state, she had her shining moments: She was educated and well-spoken, and as long as her mind held, she was a talented teacher of special-needs children. At times she pulled it admirably together: securing a job, renting an apartment, putting food on the table and getting the kids regularly to school. For Love and her sister, these were the days of heaven.

But they never lasted. Inevitably Wini's brief periods of stability gave way to horrifying descents into religious delusion, paranoia and rage, always culminating in the same sad end: The trio lost its tenuous grip on anything resembling mainstream life, and all three were tossed back to the margins.

Within these margins was a life dotted with flophouses and foster homes, food stamps, mission chow lines, flights from the landlord and racism both major and quotidian. To her credit, Love doesn't reduce her childhood to a numbing laundry list of indignities. She has a keen sense of how to portray the humiliation of sliding down to rock bottom without turning the proceedings into a pity party. Instead, she fleshes out a life of making do under extreme conditions and overcoming them, from scavenging for cigarette butts in the slums of Omaha to taking charge of her emergent teenage sexuality to moving out on her own while still in high school. She relates fond memories of those who aided and encouraged her but also the pain of the unraveling of the mystery of her absent father.

Love tells her difficult story in plain language, minus the melodrama one finds in memoirs by, say, Elizabeth Wurtzel or Catherine Texier. Love's tone is more akin to that of Emily Fox Gordon, whose stellar account of chronic therapy and recovery, "Mockingbird Years," gained its momentum through unswerving honesty, astringent prose and the removal of any trace of the maudlin from the telling. Though not as deep as Gordon in her self-analysis, Love takes a similar tack, and it makes for a genuinely tight read.

The memoir takes Love up to age 20, when she awkwardly headed out to Portland, Ore., to begin a new life as a musician. In a short epilogue, she skims over the next 20 years to the present. As sometimes happens in memoirs of childhood, the author seems too eager to wrap up the loose ends before the curtain falls, delivering her overarching assessment of the preceding emotional roller coaster in only a few pages.

While she believably speaks of the peace she has made with her past, she also leaves some unanswered questions as to how she got from there to here. Her ensuing life as a musician -- no doubt a colorful and at times difficult one -- is only touched upon. Love says she is now a foster mother to a child removed from an abusive home. In passing, she mentions her partner, Pam. And though Wini is still alive, we get no solid update on her mental health today. But those can be stories for another book. On the evidence of this riveting account of Laura Love's troubled youth, there is no doubt that this persevering woman has an equally absorbing story of adulthood to tell.