An accomplished debut novel about a family that lives in one of those rural locales where the old are ornery, the middle-aged disappointed, and only the young happy. Fern's family moves to the mountains of Kentucky three years after their farm fails in Ohio. Dad now has a job with the gas company, but he worries about losing it; Mom is tired out from taking care of everyone; older sister Florabelle is pregnant, angry, and about to marry the child's father, Jason; baby sister Birdie wants to keep the entire latest litter of puppies; Grandma, living alone nearby, is getting forgetful; and Fern works hard at the local gas station for kindly Clem. The characters and setting are saved from clichÇ by Fern's fresh perspective--almost. Fern is strong, conscientious, and gratifyingly sensible as she tries to hold the family together. And when she meets handsome architecture student Culler, she realizes she needs a life of her own. The two go fishing; then Culler comes home to dinner, which is a disaster. Meantime, as Christmas approaches, the family is alienated by Dad's decision to send Grandma to a nursing home; Florabelle has the baby and is later abandoned by Jason; Fern starts work at a veterinary lab, where she is encouraged to apply to college; and when the family objects both to her relationship with Culler and to her increasing independence, she regretfully moves out. This family disapproval, and the lovers' shared guilt about a fire at Clem's gas station that they may have caused, nearly ends the relationship. But a story like this has to end happily, which it does as love triumphs over a variety of family woes. Altogether, an intelligent celebration of the sometimes conflicting forces of family loyalty and romantic love.