Friendship across the great racial divide of the South is sensitively addressed in a novel that tries too hard to make a moving tale profound. Cox (Familiar Ground, 1984, etc.) here uses an awkward formula--letters to a father written in childhood mixed with alternating segments on the past and the immediate present--to tell the story of white Evie Bell and black Janey. The writing tends toward the awkward as well (``I missed his brows that could bring a soft rain'') as Cox strains for meaning and effect. It all begins with the funeral in Mercy, Georgia, of Volusia, Janey's mother, who for 12 years had been not only Evie's mother's housekeeper but best friend. When August, Evie's biologist father, left for good, Volusia and Janey moved in and shared the family house. Janey was also soon sharing Evie's room--though no one in the town was supposed to know: It was the '50s, and while the struggle for civil rights was becoming more evident, the South was still rigidly segregated. At night, after the lights were out, the two girls loved to talk, and each day after school they played together. But as Evie, now a teacher in Texas, visits her mother and Volusia's grieving second husband, she recalls--seeing Janey again--how difficult it was to keep up that close rapport as the outside world intervened. When Janey was 16, her brother Albert, a decorated Korean War hero, was badly beaten for his civil rights activities, and Janey was raped--events that served to strain the girls' friendship badly. Now, the murder of a white man on the eve of Volusia's funeral, a murder that Janey is accused of before being exonerated, reveals hidden secrets and renews the old, essential ties. An affecting celebration of the resilience of friendship, but undercut by its stock characters, who, despite nods to Faulkner and other southern greats, remain flat and unsurprising.