First fiction that explores the simmering rage passed through four generations of emotionally stunted southern ``ladies''--an unusually confident and original debut that unveils the spiritual anesthetization behind the gracious feminine smile. When Sarah Grissom was seven, her older cousins led her to the forbidden attic of Grandmother Northgate's old house in East Texas to introduce her to the scary ghost they claimed resided there. Frightened but excited, Sarah never expected that, while her cousins played at shrieks and catcalls, she herself would actually experience the presence of a bone-chilling, anguished, unearthly presence. Sarah's awareness of the phantom continues to haunt her into adulthood, and leads to an exploration of the life of her genteel foremother, Eugenia Princess Burnham, who emigrated to Texas from Mississippi after the Civil War, and whose human sensibilities had been as deliberately and systematically crippled as an aristocratic Chinese woman's feet. Brought up to deny her own passion, curiosity, and sexuality--forbidden even to speak the words that referred to their existence--Eugenia and her female progeny learned to communicate with silence and innuendo, to smile when their husbands praised their purity, lightly to change the subject when the tiniest uncomfortable element entered any conversation. Such artificiality (exaggerated here, perhaps, for effect) leads to increasingly neurotic practices: Grandmother Princess Laura Northgate has her virginity taken surgically on her wedding day and gives birth by Cesarean section in an attempt to control her body's functions. Eventually, though, change invades even East Texas: daughter Grovana Princess manages to flee, opening a door for her own daughter, Sarah, to outrun her heritage. Sarah does escape, but many years later--strengthened by education and travel and having weathered two suicides, a teenage pregnancy, and a mental breakdown in her own generation of females, she returns to free, in the face of her cousins' timid skepticism, the spirit of the Northgates from bondage. A nearly perfect first novel--courageous, revelatory, and, in the end, deeply moving.