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Thursday, May 13, 2004 10:13 pm

A feeling for family, down on the farm

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A Handful of Prisms By Helene O’Shea American Book Publishing, 240 pages, $22

What happens when 10 siblings decide to join forces? Add 10 cousins to the mix, and imagine the fun and frivolity. Often, downright naughty things happen.

Springfield native Helene Odell Moss O'Shea, the middle child of 10, writes of her family's escapades in A Handful of Prisms, due out July 4. The book brims with clear descriptions and quick wit -- and, O'Shea admits, "a bit of embellishing." But, for the most part, the stories she tells about growing up on a farm in the 1940s and '50s are true and a delight to read.

For example, there's the time when the siblings paint the kitchen in the "warm" colors of hot pink and brown as a Mother's Day surprise. Mother, who had inadvertently prompted the idea by saying her kitchen wasn't warm enough, must find a clever way to undo the damage without telling the kids how much she hates their handiwork.

The siblings conspire to keep their parents in the dark about their escapades. When Helene hits a tree with the family car, they disguise the accident by making it appear as though a shelf in the garage, loaded with heavy cans, collapsed onto the vehicle. After they hide a horse in the pasture, they must come up with creative explanations for why the tomatoes have been trampled. They eavesdrop on their parents through a heating vent -- until the day one sister forgets to replace the grate and falls in.

Like all children, the siblings are mischievous, and they fight. But they also pull together. They save money for presents, comfort each other when a neighbor boy dies of polio, and divide up chores on the farm. Though the family is not rich, the siblings' times together more than make up for a lack of money.

O'Shea says the book has "brought back a feeling for family -- it has refreshed things for me." Her family, she says, appreciates the stories, and one grandchild "can quote the book to me."

"It has given my grandchildren a chance to meet some of the people in my life who they never got to know."

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