A young woman's rites of passage in Iowa before the Great War- -limned in a first novel of much craft and too little vitality. In a story that blends a traditional loss of innocence with mythic Celtic beliefs, and that's set in a prosperous midwestern household of the early 20th century, Esstman recounts how Anna Berter is tested, falters, but triumphantly comes through (as is obligatory in the genre)--though at a price. As a child, Anna loved to listen to the stories told by the Old One, a housekeeper from Scotland, of ``selchies''--magical seals that Celts believe can assume human form. The Old One and her granddaughter Edwina provide the warmth and affection that the young Anna seems unable to get from her perfectionist mother (``the Prussian''). But this slightly flawed Eden is threatened when a son of her mother's old friend comes for an extended visit. He soon seduces Edwina, whom he equally soon abandons when she gives birth to a little girl, Rose, whom Anna's mother and father adopt against Edwina's will. Driven mad by grief, Edwina haunts the family, and Anna, forbidden to see her beloved Old One, is puzzled by her family's harsh behavior--but not for long. In sporadic episodes of defiance, she takes baby Rose to visit the Old One and Edwina in their tumbledown cabin, where she learns the extent of her mother's cruelty, as well as a mystery about her own birth. Time passes slowly, and adolescent Anna--torn between affection for her parents and abhorrence of their treatment of Edwina--confronts her parents only when it's too late to avoid the inevitable tragedy. But Anna will survive because she has the ``selchies.'' Just thinking of them, it seems, will keep her safe in the years ahead. Full of good intentions--and not much else.