A debut novel of enormous and pugnacious charm in which the narrator--a ten-year-old girl living with her combative parents on a Kentucky-area hog farm--observes, absorbs, and surmounts the tearing needs and angers of adults, all with a cool savvy. The happy ending she should have--happens. It's 1963, and as Isobel and her father, Prince Roundtree, cringe in the TV's blue light, her mother, Clematis, the beautiful, redhaired, tantrum-flinging, would-be singer and dancer--who lived ``her own fast life in her head''--slams out again. The next time Isobel sees her mother is in ``Sin City,'' where she and Dad gaily go to see Clematis perform in a ``nightclub''--i.e., strip joint. Isobel (who sneaks in) notices that her mother's eyes, when she sees her child, and Dad's eyes both ``filled up with that lost-in- the-wilderness look.'' It's in Sin City that Isobel, lost, lands in the police station, and there meets the six-foot-three Emma Swallow, a vagrant at 29, with silvery eyes and picket teeth. Until Emma shows up at the hog farm (at Isobel's invitation), home is grim and sad; there's also Isobel's fear of a drifter--the ``cat man''--who hangs around asking for Clematis. But while Emma doesn't do stupendous magic when she takes over as housekeeper (she'd promised to turn a policewoman into a toad), she is clean, almost pretty sometimes; Dad is happier; and things are settling down-- when back comes Mother. Before long there's a bombshell blowup, a near-suicide, fire, death, and, for Isobel, some special private knowledge about who she is. A small, happy pleasure in spiky regional diction, with a loamy humor as King suggests a child's world of rich colors and fevered fairy-tale giants, and moments when ``the world stopped while you took the picture.''