Those who enjoyed Edith Herself (1987) will find a haunting resonance in this prequel (again set in rural Illinois in the 1880's) about Alena, Edith's oldest sister. Alena is eager to enter eighth grade; but when her mother goes into a deep depression after her three-day-old premature baby dies, Alena is forced to stay home to run the house. Though Alena mourns school (and the company of the teacher she admires), she does find satisfaction in taking care of things--though it's mixed with the loss of her mother's support, especially when menstruation begins: ignorant of its meaning, she fears for her life. As her mother emerges from despondency and is again pregnant (with Edith), Alena realizes that she can never return to school; still, she finds the courage to dream other dreams. Howard writes with loving realism as she depicts birth and menstruation through the shocked eyes of an uninformed 13-year-old. Powerfully believable in character and incident, an excellent historical novel.