Family history and feminist themes combine in an earnest but strained debut--about women's struggle for selfhood at the turn of the century. Set in what is today the Adirondacks Park but was then a mining camp, Perks's tale traces the evolving if unlikely friendship between two women: One the rich but seizure-prone Regina Sartwell, her life loosely based on that of the author's own great- great-aunt; the other Olive Honsinger, a miner's wife and daughter. The pair meet when Regina, visiting the camp with her stereotypically mine-owning Victorian uncle, throws herself from a window before a crowd that happens to include Olive. Regina survives, but her epileptic fits, diagnosed as hysteria and incipient madness, have tried the family long enough. Her doctor has given her six months to shape up before she's sent to an asylum where radical genital surgery will be performed. Meanwhile, Regina, attracted by Olive's golden hair, insists that her new friend take care of her while she recovers from her fall. Olive does so because her family needs the money, but the job isn't easy. She not only has to deal with the capricious Regina, who becomes pregnant after seducing Olive's Swedish brother-in-law, then has an abortion that gets her into even more trouble, but she also--like the reader--has to contend with the novel's long political agenda: so that, as Regina and Olive's friendship grows, the two encounter despised gypsies, striking miners, female herbalists, prejudiced male doctors, asylums, a breakaway Shaker colony, and the implications of romantic friendship between women. Regina finally finds peace- -and refuge from her cruel family--with the Shaker women, while also making new lives possible for Olive and her family by means of a gift. Perks tries hard to break new ground, and yet her first novel, like a literary beast of burden, is overloaded with good intentions.