An author of small domestic fictions (A Dream of Old Leaves, 1989; A Stranger's House, 1988; etc.) takes on larger issues in this resonant novel about simple people who reach a state of grace through human tragedy. Jewel and Leston Hilburn are poor Mississippi ``crackers'' and the glad parents of five ordinary children during WW II. Jewel- -whose strong, maternal voice narrates--hears the prophetic words that will change her life forever when Cathedral, a ``niggerwoman servant,'' tells her ``the baby you be carrying be your hardship, be yo test in this world.'' Five months after the birth of Brenda Kay, Jewel learns that this sixth and last child is a ``Mongolian Idiot,'' not expected to live beyond the age of two. But over the next 41 years Jewel realizes the ``giant blessing and curse of a retarded child''--her love for Brenda Kay so fierce and so blinding it runs roughshod over everyone else close to her. Rather than accept a future for her baby in a dead place, she nearly destroys Leston--the only man she's ever loved--by twice uprooting him from Mississippi to California. Consumed by rage and blame, she humiliates Cathedral, her one true friend, because of an accidental fire that leaves Brenda Kay scarred for life. She accepts emotional gaps with her other children--words spoken too late, an embrace interrupted--because she is so bound up in Brenda Kay's salvation. Yet, with all the sacrifice, the glory, and the pain, Brenda Kay's triumphs seem small in the end: she learns to whisper; she can hum a tuneless tune, she writes the letter B, she sometimes laughs. But, though she never grows beyond the mental age of six, Brenda Kay is deeply loved, her very existence a sign of ``the Lord smiling down'' on these good people. A quiet, at times slow-moving novel with exquisite moments of tenderness and the gift for elevating the commonplace to the sublime.