Set deep in the heart of turn-of-the-century Texas, Alter's novel starts and ends with a bang: it opens, that is, with the shooting of Ellspeth James' deputy-sheriff dad and closes over a year later with the capture at gunpoint of her stepfather, a hank. robber who's passed himself off as a respectable banker. Sandwiched in between these slices of pistol-packin' melodrama is a rather episodic period-of-adjustment story that shows twelve-year-old Ellspeth taking over the family reins and serving as chief cook and bottle washer at the James' new rooming house since ""helpless"" Ma can't seem to snap out of mourning, at least until one of her boarders-oily, overly solicitous Mr. Millard--comes a-courting. Throughout Ma's short-lived second marriage Ellspeth is properly resentful and also clear-sighted enough to pick up on the blatant (and overstated) hypocrisy around her: new-to-town Millard is instantly accepted by polite society in Center, Texas, while Ellspeth's friend, Lavine Abrams, is called ""sheenie"" and treated as a semi-pariah. Of course Alter's targets are awfully obvious but readers hankering for a glimpse of the Old West will enjoy this, sure as shooting.