In Ruffins Inlet, South Carolina, most everyone who's white is either named St. Clair or is somehow connected to that populous family--which owns and runs the Inlet Manor, a famous seafood restaurant, along with just about every other money-making proposition in town. And when eleven-year-old Chester St. Clair comes with his mother to Ruffins Inlet from Richmond (where his daddy's in a mental institution), his guide through the St. Clair ranks is Catlin, a tomboy girl cousin about his age whose opinions and actions are all spunky and irreverent. Catlin, you see, knows all the family dirt: about Aunt Sissy, the all-powerful matriarch (she orders Chester's needy mother to open a laundromat in her living room!); about Sissy's retarded daughter, Shirley Mae, whose fully developed physical attributes cause continual problems; about Uncle Benny and his Saturday night cockfights. And Chester's summer is also enlivened by chats with the black kitchen help--who speak in Gullah of ""plat-eyes' (ghosts) and the ""Gray Man"" who walks the beach discouraging the arrival of offshore hurricanes. But beyond the fine, affectionate, one-Southern-summer atmosphere here, there's also a darker subtext: Sissy's not-so-cute tyranny, which leads in time to a suicide, and a chain of events that culminates in Catlin being sent to reform school after shooting Aunt Sissy in the foot with a .22 rifle. This deceptive gravity adds distinction to what might otherwise seem only a nice variation on the A Member of the Wedding milieu: a good job, then, done all in feints and shadows.