Friends are all eleven-year-old Nell has left when her mother walks out on the family and her father simply steps up his oblivious beer-drinking and TV-watching. Gene Clark, a former brief boyfriend of Nell's older sister now drafted into the Army, proves one of Nell's better friends, though she won't admit this for a while. The story opens with her utter fury at his asking her, in front of her sixth-grade friends, to write to him. She seems to think this implies a boy-girl relationship and does go through a period of imagining herself in love with him before accepting his genuine friendship. It takes a while for the story to overcome the initial silliness of Nell's intense, off-base overreaction to Gene's innocent request. As for Nell's sixth-grade friends, they come across as little more than a list of names, despite their common characterization as unusually close and supportive. They even skip school to visit Nell, first when she's home playing sick--this does finally win Dad's notice, but only momentarily--and again when she is suspended for organizing ""the Tet game"" in the school playground. In the days of LBJ and the Vietnam war, Nell's unsympathetic teacher, as well as her father, sister, principal, and all other adults, find her behavior shockingly unpatriotic--which seems, again, a case of overreaction to a kid's TV-news-inspired war game. To an extent, the loose strands come together at an antiwar demonstration that turns to riot when the police move in with clubs and tear gas. Nell is buffetted and slightly battered, and her abandoned child's wildness comes to a head when she sees a woman she thinks is her mother and starts clobbering her from behind. This is a strong and well-integrated scene, but until then the story has been too patchy and often too sketchy to make either a persuasive statement or a firm impression.