It's a shocking scene that opens this novel about a Boston family who lives for a time in Liberia: Sarina, 12, is tied to a tree in her muddy yard, left there by her clearly unbalanced mother, who is having a ""reaction"" to her diabetes. Other cruelties are visited upon Sarina, an intelligent, resourceful girl; her mother beats her, she is forbidden companionship, left alone for days with the servants, and ignored by her father. Zemser carefully builds a picture of this acutely individual character and how her relationships--clandestine and otherwise--prevent her from becoming like her mother, and make her more open to the circle of love and life she finds in friendships with local villagers. This portrayal of the outsiders as cold, rich, and entitled is not a new one, but here it's very compelling and the characters are strong. The story is laced with Liberian-English dialect; there is excitement and adventure as well as the probing of a precocious girl's psyche that makes this novel involving.