Set in rural Georgia from the Depression years on, this first novel is convincing in regional diction and trappings but becomes muscle-bound in scene after scene of towering emotive highs. Lloyd Sloan, a dirt farmer--who swears by his calling with stained-glass conviction (""I'd never lay anything but clean strong hands on God's land"")--is troubled with the imminent loss of his farm and with his marriage to miscarriage-prone Nettie. Nettie is finally wounded in mind and body after the birth of their only child, Ira, while Lloyd winds up as town sheriff. Into these hard times comes migrant Jessie, a raw-boned mother of three sons, deserted by her husband. Lloyd, intrigued by Jessie's special air of almost mystical calm, invites her to take root on his land. Nettle abruptly leaves, and eventually Lloyd and Jessie marry and have children. Within this odd family, two bruised sons--loner Ira and Jessie's ""pure-born"" prophesying son Nate--writhe with their special torments. In the florid finale, Nate, undergoing a public religious frenzy, is bitten by poisonous snakes. Ira, learning at last the truth about his mother's desertion ('twasn't Jessie's fault), learns the power of forgiveness. And Jessie, dead of snake wounds from rescuing Nate, leaves a legacy of strength and faith to be taken up by. . . Ira. The author has orchestrated a distinctive music out of folk speech and star-stung visions and transports, but some passages clump like yesterday's oatmeal: ""she did not move hastily enough for Ira to miss seeing her under-bite fall, bringing down with it the whole shelter of her face. Her brow like rafters was low and bent. . . .""Souls at the flood--feverish and enervating.