Hale's ""memory novel""--about a boy who must stay with relatives and among the sadly deranged residents of a country home--reads like a reminiscence: an episodic weave of instances with the texture of autobiography, satisfying as a portrait of weather-beaten lives. Nine-year-old David, sensitive and observant, is sent to his Uncle Will and childless Aunt Maude when his mother takes sick. Maude is the head cook at a country house--an ""isolated collection of structures. . .in the midst of a thousand-acre farm""--peopled by a motley crew. Rose, whom David befriends, is an Italian in her early 30s who murdered her husband (""David, I have no tears. Isn't that sad?""). Adeline is a passionate black woman who ""[doesn't] like clothes."" Every other afternoon she does a fertility dance (""You can't dance a fertility dance in underpants, stupid . . .""). Roy is a retarded giant who loves opera (David: ""He let me conduct because he liked to conduct""). Meanwhile, David roams among these people and his relatives: trying to pray (""the prayer wasn't going anywhere""); enlisting voodoo-practitioner Adeline as an ally when he's bullied by schoolboy Roger (the voodoo works); and learning about ghosts--when Rose dies from pneumonia (having caught ""the will to die""), for instance, he tries to contact her. Without her, he finds that ""living wasn't as much fun anymore."" At last, however, his mother improves enough to return home, and his father comes for him. Waving goodbye, David remembers what Rose said about the elm of the title: ""Beyond that tree is the abyss. . .If I could get to that elm at the edge, I'd be free."" A quiet chronicle, then, about a year in the life of a midwestern boy forced to grow up quickly. At its best, this first novel from Hale--a former president of the American Booksellers Association--is a haunting memoir.