A convoluted coming-of-age story with a gothic veneer. Gwyn Stickley, known as ``Stick,'' witnesses the explosion of the Challenger when she's on a high-school trip to Florida. Returning to her dreary unnamed hamlet in upstate New York, she might want to brood about the tragedy, but she's got plenty to brood about already in her own backyard: There's best friend JoAnn, for instance, secretly pregnant and still swilling beer; local storekeeper Gray, who, with his retarded son Benjy, has recently been charged with child-molesting; and Stick's own bickering parents, especially her beautiful, elusive mother Wanda, who seems to be harboring dark secrets of her own. When JoAnn's son is born in a shed in the woods, Stick assists at the birth, then spirits the baby to a mall where someone can find him and take him in. She can't stop thinking about the infant, but she takes up religion and tap-dancing, at least for a while, and her story gathers some pull when she heads for Manhattan to try for a career. All too soon, though, she's tapped out. She heads back upstate to confront a new onslaught of tragedies--including JoAnn's violent death, the discovery of a skeleton in the woods, and a gruesome accident that leaves her own father impaled on a spike fence. It's all a bit too much: Ferriss could have whittled her plot twists to half of what's here and made a better, more coherent story. By the time Mom finally reveals her dark secret, we're too numb to care a lot; and for someone with so much savvy, Stick never understands that she really does need to dance her way to freedom, finishing instead where she began, back in the hamlet. Stick is stuck. Overdone and overtold. Ferriss (The Gated River, 1986, etc.) should have listened to her own main character, a girl whose favorite pastime is parsing sentences to reveal their basic elements.