A James Michener Fellowship winner sets her first novel on the prairies of Montana, but its events, which cast large shadows of meaning as the story progresses, could have happened anywhere. The tale begins during WW II, with two sisters, Etta, 24, and Pearl, 25, hunkered down in the house they inherited from their parents, both of them suffering the loss of lovers but never communicating their pain. Pearl even contemplates suicide, but before she can think up a method, she meets Gordon Buckman (``Buck''), a rancher's son who she can see right away will ``change her life.'' They marry and move out to the ranch, where Pearl bears Katie and grows up to become an immensely capable farm wife. But Etta never takes to Buck, distrusting him somehow, a feeling that's justified when he begins to play around with just about any and every available female--barmaids, sales clerk, and finally even his best friend's wife. Etta watches the marriage fester, determining to stay single, taking what she needs from men (i.e., sex) but never letting herself become vulnerable enough to love. In the end, it's Katie who'll wear the deepest scars from this old, familiar story, since, beyond Pearl's influence, Buck becomes a drunken lout, once even sexually molesting his little girl. What emerges from all this is a picture of husbands and fathers doing damage to the women around them (by some mandate that's almost genetic), and the women knowing it but needing and wanting the men nonetheless. Many will find that this simply written, unself-conscious novel rings profoundly true. Still, Volk's material has been much worked-through, and there's a kind of quiet distance to her approach: her story stings, but it never really draws blood.