This hothouse historical throws us into the laps of the Vandever family: father Paul is a famous Hudson River School painter; writer/mother Celia divides herself between potboilers and serious essays under the pseudonym Martin St. James; Jason is being pushed toward a career as a concert pianist; Betony writes; Jon paints; brother Joshua attends West Point. . . and eighteen-year-old Bedelia is special in another way, she hasn't really learned much since an accident at age two. Bridget does nothing else but tell this story, which gets off to a violent start when temperamental Jason shames a reluctant Josh into enlisting in the Civil War and Bedelia is ""interfered with"" by the no-good Culhaine boys. Fearing Jason's temper again, Betony and Bridget decide to keep the outrage a secret (Bedelia herself is stunned mute) and soon enough everyone is distracted by the arrival of two more decoratively two dimensional characters--great-grandmother Lady Sandiman who's spent the last few decades dallying in Arabia and housemaid Marrit, one of the Ramapo Mountain People. Lots more happens, including the arrival of a baby and a suitor for Bedelia and a lover for Celia. Johnston, whether in the admirable Keeping Days or the tortuous Strangers Dark and Gold, has never been a writer to leave things out. Each of the Vandevers is favored by a personal Muse and, as a group, they're so self-conscious of their own specialness that it's hard to credit them belonging to 1861 or any other time. And even their starchy energy begins to pall as it becomes obvious that this chronicle has more ingredients than one of Celia's potboilers.