Growing up as a slowly sharpening awareness of the layered complexity of life and ultimately as engagement--""We can't keep out of it... We're people. We're stuck with it""--in the first juvenile by an author who writes with spare, precise suggestiveness. The story of Sam (""a foolish name for a fifteen-year-old girl"") builds quietly from her first glimpse of an Irish wolfhound and the defection of foolish, fond Uncle Everett to Las Vegas; asa reward for not disclosing his intended departure (her first hard choice), Uncle Everett gives her a wolfhound, Cormac, whose training and showing become the focal point of a variously troubled existence. Sam lives on an island in Nontana, a retreat for her cynical father and sometimes prison for her ingenuous mother; tutored at home, she is self-conscious and uncertain--but ""I cannot grow up like Rima the Bird Girl""--in her first encounter with the high school syndrome. Suddenly she is someone, and Sam suspects it is because she hasn't told on the two big wheels who hit her and ran in an auto accident; but one of the boys didn't want to run, and as his guilt assumes distasteful, demeaning forms, Sam decides that he must be forced to confess, at whatever cost to her social acceptance. The third choice is the hardest: Uncle Everett returns, laden with gifts and debts; feeling for him despite his weakness (""He is our uncle"" and ""I would never have had Cornac at all without him""), she determines to sell the now-very-valuable dog to help him. The violent death of Uncle Everett that forestalls the sacrifice is the only faintly contrived note, but the decision has been made, and the reader is convinced that Sam meant what she said, and understands why. A sub-plot involving the romance of the attractive music teacher will be less comprehensible to youngsters, but it hardly matters. Sam is a magnificently realized character in a novel whose maturity is inherent, whose concerns are moral in the most fundamental sense. For the reader undeterred by the circumspect establishment of situation, it offers many levels of response.