Gibbons's fourth novel, inspired by WPA oral histories, lacks the subtlety and charm of her previous books (A Cure for Dreams, A Virtuous Woman, Ellen Foster). As a tribute to no-nonsense southern feminism, it risks stridency and strains belief. This fictional memoir of the narrator's most remarkable grandmother celebrates a freethinking, strong-willed woman who has little use for most men. Charlie (Clarissa) Kate Birch is a turn- of-the-century midwife whose medical acumen makes her a legend in North Carolina well into the 20th century. Unschooled but a voracious reader, Charlie Kate works her miracles at everything except her own marriage. Her husband heads for the hills soon after the birth of Sophia, who later takes after her mother by marrying a faithless cad, one rewarded with an early death. Sophia's daughter Margaret, the narrator, chronicles the shared lives of these three women as they experience in relative comfort the 30's and 40's. They're self-sufficient, well-read, and cynical in matters of faith and sex. They're equally contemptuous of the idle rich and the vulgar poor. As Charlie Kate's assistants, Sophia and Margaret are exposed to a full range of human frailties and oddities. A real can-do family, these women display remarkably good taste for their times, disparaging Gone With the Wind while venerating ``Mr. Faulkner.'' Something of a prig, Margaret doesn't hesitate to lecture illiterates and humiliate lusty boys. Her virtue is well rewarded when she meets the smart, handsome, and rich Tom Hawkings, who falls head over heels for this kindred spirit. Meanwhile, Sophia remarries well, and the great and aging matriarch can die in peace. A fairy tale of the South that embodies the values it celebrates: frugality, rectitude, and common sense. In other words, boring and self-righteous.