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Chronicling a writer's evolving spirit

Dorothy Gallagher's gift for verisimilitude both shines and backfires in "Strangers in the House," her latest collection of "life stories."

Each piece is drawn from experiences from her world -- which, for Gallagher, includes New York City and the Ukraine, land of her Jewish forebears. Taken in sequence, the stories chronicle Gallagher's evolution from a talented but flippant young woman with a certain indifference to others to a stunningly capable older woman of great compassion and wit.

The trick is to get past the tedious self-absorption of the young person in the first two stories to the strong, funny woman who wrote the rest of the short memoirs in "Strangers in the House."

"Oh my goodness, the themes you stumble over as you make your way from day to day!" Gallagher exclaims in the title story. "Trust, Betrayal, Class, Hypocrisy, Love, Hate, Greed, Sickness, Health. It only needs War and Peace."

"Strangers in the House" is the jewel in the crown here -- a complicated story told simply that involves Gallagher's husband, Ben, whose multiple sclerosis has advanced to the stage where he requires help both for his physical needs and to continue his work as a writer and editor.

Hence, there are strangers in the house -- the disease, the changed Ben, the two Brazilian women who care for Ben and the household, Gallagher (now a stranger in her own house) and, last but not least, "B," about whom this story is written. "B" was hired in 1991 as Ben's literary assistant.

"There is always a first time -- the first cigarette before it becomes a habit, the first murder before it becomes thrillingly serial," Gallagher writes. "I'm not sure of the date, but all the evidence indicates that the first time 'B' stole money from Ben was early in 1994."

Gallagher, trained as a journalist, is always clear and concise, rich in facts -- and blessed with a style all her own. Sometimes she speaks only in subplots, or between the lines. Sometimes she forces her readers to have the emotional responses she won't. Always, her passion for the truth comes through.

In "Dumb Luck," the last story in this collection, Gallagher tells of Betya, her mother's niece, returning to the Ukrainian town of Uman where, in a single day in 1941, the German army gunned down 24,000 Jews, throwing their bodies into a common ditch -- Betya's parents presumably among them.

"Betya did not set foot in Uman until the seventies," Gallagher writes. "She found, to her surprise, that her parents' house was still standing. She knocked on the door. A woman answered.

" 'Did you know my parents?' Betya asked.

" 'Oh yes,' the woman said. 'I knew them when I was a child. I was in the grave. I was saved at the last moment. I saw your mother in there.' "

The sad but beautiful "Dumb Luck" is in the vein of Gallagher's successful earlier collection, "How I Came Into My Inheritance and Other True Stories," which is based on her New York City childhood as the daughter of immigrants.

"Mystery Woman Ruled Dead: Lost Since Break with Reds," the fourth story in this compilation, is a story about the disappearance of a woman with Communist ties and a connection to Gallagher's family (some of whose members also had Communist sympathies).

In 1944, Juliet Poyntz was declared legally dead, according to the New York Daily Mirror.

"On a long-ago afternoon I came home from school to find my mother sitting at the kitchen table," Gallagher writes. "She was reading a newspaper. It wasn't one of the newspapers she usually read -- I was intrigued so I read over my mother's shoulder.

"Who was she, this Juliet Poyntz? What was this mystery?"

Gallagher looks into this mystery in the story, first published, we are told, in a different form as "Disappeared" in Grand Street in 1990.

Another story in the collection, "Jury Duty," appeared initially in The New York Times Magazine as "A Murder in Morningside Park," and "Strangers in the House" made its debut in More in March of this year.

Enhancing the stories in this collection are photographs, some taken by Gallagher. One, purportedly of Harry, a terrier mix once owned by Gallagher and Ben, is by Sylvia Plachy and graces the book's cover. Harry -- the focus of "Stay," a wonderful story of life, death and unconditional love -- came into Gallagher's life by default:

"The dog question had been decided: The person who wants something more than the person who doesn't want it wins."

All but the earliest stories in this collection are memorable -- and even the earliest become so in retrospect, when taken as part of the whole. Gallagher is an author who knows her heritage, her city and the human soul.

Plus, she is genuinely funny -- or, as she would put it: "Is it life, or what?"

She is also the author of "Hannah's Daughters: Six Generations of an American Family: 1876-1976" and "All the Right Enemies: The Life and Murder of Carlo Tresca."

Karen Brady is a former News columnist.

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Strangers in the House:Life Stories

By Dorothy Gallagher

Random House, 142 pages, $22.95

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