Perhaps because it's based on the life of David (Lady into Fox) Garnett's great-grandmother, this period rags-to-riches saga never conforms to the patterns of the genre, and that stubborn shapelessness is one of its charms. Barefoot, illiterate Clementina starts out badly on Scotland's turn-of-the-19th-century coast, with her father's deportation for smuggling, her mad Auntie's attempts to bewitch her, and her socially unacceptable camaraderie with the camping Gypsies. But curly-haired Peter, a fish-merchant's son who prefers the sea to an Edinburgh career, defies his family by choosing Clementina and encouraging her efforts at self-improvement. When Peter is press-ganged into the Navy, however, Clementina must turn fisher-lassie to feed her children, finally saving enough pennies to afford her great journey: the 500-mile walk to Portsmouth to see Peter (who has distinguished himself at Trafalgar), even if only for a day. Clementina's trudge, 25-30 miles a day, with only Jasper the gypsy dog and a certificate-of-respectability from her minister for protection, subject to the kindness or vileness of strangers, is the familiar but still remarkable heart of this book; what follows after her return journey (by boat, contracting smallpox, losing her looks) is anticlimactic: Peter's solvent homecoming, his rise as a pioneer commander-shipbuilder, their moves to Edinburgh, London, the Continent (dinner with the Tsar), the mixed fates of their children. But throughout, Garnett's precise, neutral narration avoids sentimental gush or melodrama in its evocation of family tensions, class prejudice, and the call of the sea. ""Men could build a steam yacht for the Tsar of Russia instead of a North Island vole, but they could not change the sea,"" thinks Clementina as she dies leaning against a wave-sprayed rock, a quiet ending for a quiet but firmly told drama of unexaggerated hardships and heroism.