The themes here--a blend of women's-lib and To Kill a Mockingbird--are both too familiar and too earnestly pounded out. But Williams (The Wintering) softens and enriches that message material with her loamy, visceral rendering of a 1962 Mississippi small town--the rhythms of rural Southern idiom, the motes of beauty found in the dusty streets and shimmering fields. The county woman is childless, 50-year-old Allie McCall, who dutifully tends house for husband Tate and 90-year-old Poppa: she's the good wife who worries that her men might not take to the nutmeg she's put in the pie. Despite sexist conditioning, however, Allie's got that ""permanent peculiar feeling that somewhere deep inside her she was braver than Tate."" And though she's at first puzzled and frightened by the increasingly insistent civil-rights movement--symbolized by the furor over James Meredith at Ole Miss--Allie will come to identify her own struggle out of the iron cage of ""womensfolk business"" with the struggle against racism. Two specific cases trigger her new consciousness: Elfie, the Negro who's been in prison since allegedly killing Allie's mother 40 years ago, escapes (Allie, learning that Elfie was really the victim of a lewdly rapacious woman and circumstantial evidence, gets him pardoned); and a local spoiled rich-kid goes on a boozed-up rampage killing--so Allie, determined to see justice done, sends the killer to jail and even gets herself elected sheriff. And what does all this do to Allie's marriage? Well, Tate is irritated and embarrassed, regarding Allie's activism as menopausal aberration; and Allie, after musing on her past and an afternoon of brutal sex with a crude young mechanic, decides that ""men did not very much like women."" Yet finally the marriage has a new clarity . . . and ""she would respect Tate if he left her one day."" Overdrawn in its consciousness-raising, then, with a resulting facelessness in the characters--but the big-talking/mean-talking rural-Southern milieu, which digs in like the dust in the grooves of a hot tin roof, may keep readers steadily engrossed.