A North Carolina farm boy learns what love and friendship are all about in this probing, deliberately paced debut, set in 1938. Jed Harkins's homecoming after years in prison is not a happy one for Bubba, 12; Jed is not the father Bubba recalls from six years ago. Then comes the devastating revelation that the illegal still for which his father was jailed belonged to their black neighbor--strong, wise, beloved Israel Wade; Jed took the rap knowing that, as a white man, he would survive the consequences, whereas Israel, his childhood friend, would not. O'Leary takes risks here, stereotyping some major characters and putting racist remarks in the mouths of minor ones. The explorations of race, friendship, and Bubba's inner turmoil show unusual insight, but the long, contrived plot is marked by melodramatic turns, e.g., in the climax, a school teacher forces a foreclosure auction on the Harkins's farm, stands by silently as Jed and Bubba buy it back for a dollar, then exposes himself as the Klansman who torched Israel's son years before. This is a roughly hewn structure, built on sound foundations; O'Leary shows signs of maturing into a fine writer.