Mears' empathic and intimate appreciations of the Patuxent (Maryland) River country alleviate somewhat the sentimentality and sensationalism of this 1940s boyhood--that of ""Ebb"" Kellum, whose best pal is a black boy, ""Bo"" Bodecker. Against a social background of racial hostility and inevitable cruelty, the boys fish and crab, form their secret society of two in a secret hideout, and even hire on together for a tent-raising at the circus. There Ebb sees black Chickabee Wilson caged, tortured, and forced to perform as a ""ghoul"" who eats ""live"" flesh. And later, when graves are robbed and a fresh corpse (identified as that of Ebb's chum Bo) is discovered, Chickabee is the chief suspect--he's shot by four white men. There's a court trial, a bizarre revelation about the grave robbing, and a lecture on bigotry. But finally Ebb finds that Bo is alive, saved in fact by Chickabee, and their adventures together end with the inevitable first smoking session, first girl, and first Big Fish. Hard-shell prose, dialect thick as hoecakes, a distasteful wallowing in the ugliness of racial epithets and degradations--but there's some fine watery landscape and regional appeal Very mixed bag.