Once again Smith (Last Was Lloyd, The First Hard Times) handles deeply troubling problems--of sin and guilt--with verve and uncommon understanding. Laura Cat(herine) comes from a family of questioning, thoughtful unbelievers--which sets her apart from her two best friends, fundamentalist Christian Anna and staunchly Jewish Zipporah. She's bothered initially by Anna's remark that ""it's a sin for a girl to wear pants."" (Yes, the Bible says so, her father and Zipporah subsequently confirm.) She's more bothered by haggard new neighbor Daurice, who burns candles all the time, who comes into the house unbidden to sit in the rocker. Laura Cat first fears her as a witch, then fears she'll be like her--how could she have lost sight of younger brother Mark, let him go trustingly into a stranger's car? Meanwhile the girls start giving holiday parties, where the undercurrents take vivid, spirited shape. There's a Halloween kickoff at Laura Cat's--attended by family discussion of witches and sin. (That discussion, resuming intermittently, counterpoints conversations with Anna and Zipporah.) After that success the girls plan a Thanksgiving party, at Anna's (Pilgrim and Indian teams, etc.)--which takes place after Daurice, to Laura Cat's dismay, comes for Thanksgiving dinner. Then a Hannukah party is held at Zipporah's--where the other girls don't like to go on account of Zipporah's ""weird"" great-grandmother Gigi. But Laura Cat has learned that Daurice is mentally ill; and she admires Zipporah's family for allowing Gigi's hideous behavior (even as she's glad her parents didn't let her misbehave to Daurice). She's also learned that Daurice became ill through not letting go of her guilt for the accidental death of a younger brother. In the wrap-up, there's some literal symbolism (involving a fabric-swatch) about not going against your own grain--but most of this is held in dynamic tension by a combination of vitality and penetration.