Despite a slew of artful and engaging stories to her credit, Kincaid debuts with a dull, if skillfully written, coming-of-age novel, set in the civil-rights-era South. Kincaid's candid discussion of racial issues doesn't make up for this predictable fiction, a tale of two families that smacks of retrospective self-righteousness. The narrator, young Lucy Conyers, lives in Tallahassee, Florida, at the end of the street where the ``colored section'' of town begins. Along with her brothers, Lucy must measure her mother's pro-integrationist views against her stepfather's casual racism. All of their preconceived racial notions play against the drama of everyday events. While Lucy's mother fears for her family becoming ``white trash,'' her gruff stepfather worries that Lucy's becoming a ``nigger lover.'' The black Williams family, who lives next door, is shrouded in mystery. Though the mother, Melvina, keeps house for Lucy's family, her husband, Old Alfonso, is a no-count wife-beater and drunk. Yet hard-working Melvina cannot turn out the father of her rambunctious brood, which includes 16-year-old Skippy, with whom Lucy swaps blood in a vow of secrecy. The novel bogs down in explanation as we learn all about ``the brick-wall look'' and other ``colored-people secrets.'' While Lucy loves Elvis, Skippy prefers Little Richard, and so on. One set-piece, a visit by Lucy's stepfather's Bible- addled mother, is a poignant interlude; another, in which the girl's real father shows up, is more confusing than anything else. Good intentions can't propel an otherwise belabored fiction, complete with a highly melodramatic, ironic ending.