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``Sweetwater Creek'' by Anne Rivers Siddons; HarperCollins ($24.95)
We don't have enough coming-of-age novels for girls and women, nowhere near enough Jane Eyres and distaff Huck Finns. Anne Rivers Siddons offers a worthy entry in "Sweetwater Creek" and the thoroughly admirable Emily Parmenter.
This is Siddons' best work, better than her million-seller "Peachtree Road," which describes Atlanta and its rich residents' reluctant changes during the civil rights era. Emily is the magical ingredient. Her endearing bravery elevates the novel, lifting it from that put-down category tagged women's fiction or family drama.
Emily is a 12-year-old who has dealt with her mother's abandonment and a beloved brother's death. Her father, Walter, and remaining two brothers, obsessed with hunting and the business side of training Boykin spaniels, barely notice her existence.
But Emily is terrific anyway, a wise and wonderful child, thanks to her own abilities. She has taken in love and poetry through her friendship with her dying brother, Buddy. She has spun love and magic, communicating with and caring for her spaniel, Elvis, and Sweetwater Plantation's puppies.
Even cat people will be charmed by Elvis and Emily. The Boykin spaniel is her best playmate, protector and confidante. He does not fail her as adults do.
"Elvis broke into a joyous run and launched himself straight out from the bank, head up, legs folded, tail stiff, all his flags flying. He looked like a bronze torpedo cutting into the water."
And Emily is fully at home and able to find solace in the Lowcountry's peaceable kingdom of tidal creeks and marshes, shrimp and dolphins, hawks and eagles:
" The Wadmalaw, running deep in full tide, wrapped her in trembling waterlight, and she felt full and healed."
Siddons does rely on past successes. She is practiced at capturing the woes of a young outsider: "Emily could hear unsaid words. She came sometimes to know, usually unwillingly, the thoughts of others. Her place in the world depended on it; her father and brothers made almost none for her."
Readers also will recognize from Siddons' previous books the employment of a rebellious belle to power the plot. "Peachtree Road" had Lucy; - "Nora, Nora," had Nora; "Sweetwater Creek" has Lulu.
Lulu asks her wealthy parents if she may spend the summer at Sweetwater, training dogs. She has left Randolph Macon, her glamorous boyfriend, refused her mother's blandishments to debut, to shop, to visit.
Walter, who has ignored Emily's talents, is thrilled. He sees Lulu as keys to the kingdom, his entree to the plantation-hunting society he wants praising and buying his dogs.
Lulu is assigned the role of bewitching, bedazzling doomed beauty; her job is to heighten ordinary bliss and make worse looming crises. "... Lulu burned, crackled, shimmered, fizzed, radiated light like a bonfire about to go out of control."
Emily thinks she has found a friend, a teacher, a mother-substitute, a role model. But Emily is the one with strength of character, not Lulu. And Emily is the one who can reach inside - to the voice of Buddy, still living within; to her own discernment - and without - to her aunt Jenny, to Elvis and to the land.
The way Siddons' uses Buddy and Elvis, a dead brother and a dog, as Emily's guides, works. Their advice is presented simply, as wisdom within. And some children - those lucky or sensitive - do inhabit a fully alive world of many dimensions.
What doesn't work are the men. Walter only earns sympathy when Emily is generous or pitying in her assessment. Emily's living brothers are just bodies placed at the dining-room table. Lulu's evil boyfriend, Yancey Byrd, is an incubus and a plot device.
On the other hand, this is Emily's book. And I recommend her.
`COMING OF AGE' NOVELS
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou
"Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte
"My Brilliant Career" by Miles Franklin
"Rumours of Peace" by Ella Leffland
"The Member of the Wedding" and "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter" by Carson McCullers
"The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison
AND FROM SOUTH CAROLINA
"Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison
"Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd
(c) 2005, The State (Columbia, S.C.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.