A story about anti-Semitism that doesn't pull its punches or beat its breast; a book that ends in a death without, in the process, devaluing life. Kathryn Donovan and Bennie Kretchmar are twelve-year-olds in 1940 Brook Falls, Wis., a town that hasn't recovered from the Depression and never will: to the dug-in townsfolk, everything new or strange is suspect. Ryn's father is a blustering, defensive construction worker; her vague mother has retreated into a parlor crammed with antiques. Neither is much help to awkward, restless Ryn. Bennie is a half-Jewish orphan taken in by his mother's spinster sisters--who have enrolled him in Ryn's Catholic school. The book begins, stunningly, with Bennie's Catholic burial and Ryn's indignant reaction--and then flashes back to their brief, poignant, all-important acquaintance. Bennie has clung to his neither/nor status, resisting Catholicism because ""They want me to believe my mother's gone to Hell!""; but he dreams of being a senator someday, he isn't quashed. Mocked in class for wearing, unbeknownst, another boy's cast-off pants, he ceremoniously takes them off and marches out in his worn underwear ""as calm and dignified as if he were Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor before he gave up his throne."" And his courage is contagious. When Ryn's father, miffed at Bennie's surprise catch in a baseball game, calls out ""Who let that Jew kid in here?,"" Ryn's timid mother astonishes herself and everyone else by applauding Bennie's play. Bennie and Ryn, meanwhile, have been keeping an eye on a mallard duck hatching her eggs under a railway trestle, and the class bully's attempt to shoot the duck leads, not outlandishly, to Bennie's death. In the aftermath, Ryn's family takes heart and pulls up stakes--starting with her mother's decision to sell the contents of her parlor. The story is constructed scene by scene, however, not schematically: there's a stinging confrontation, for one, between father and the iceman who's innocently jollying mother. And, correspondingly, the characters exist as motivated, accentuated individuals, not handy types. It's the rare book that has something to say and says it with dramatic conviction.