Small-town life in 1960s Missouri is conveyed with elegiac grace in this poignant coming-of-age tale. Nine-year-old Charlemagne ""Charlie"" Farrand, who wears corrective shoes and hence is nicknamed ""Thumper,"" narrates the complicated antagonisms and triumphs within his troubled family and within Cranepool's Landing, a town on the banks of the Mississippi. Charlie and his two older sisters, sweet-singing Kentucky (""Tucka""), the oldest, and multi-talented 12-year-old Graceanne, move with their mother, Edie, when she divorces their soldier father and takes them to live in an apartment in a mostly black neighborhood. Disturbed to find herself at the edge of the poverty line, Edie lashes out violently when headstrong Graceanne becomes best friends with an African-American neighbor, the smart and feisty Wanda. Whitney nicely details small-town events (cardboard box races, Christmas services and a scarecrow contest), and offers an appealingly off-beat brilliance in precocious Graceanne. The three siblings alternately protect, terrorize and tease each other in a frank and bittersweet defense against the rage of their desperate mother, who feels as threatened by her children's insouciant intelligence as by their reliance on her. Graceanne is writing a book, a diary/collection of poems and manifestoes, which she shares with her admiring brother, and in which she weaves fantasies of revenge with quirky, hilarious notes to herself that keep her pride and spirit relatively intact. When Edie discovers it, Graceanne would rather destroy her work than turn it over to her increasingly malicious mother. At such moments, Whitney's handling of young Graceanne's fiery rebellion is unpersuasive; the girl's survival strategies are so valiant, and her intellectual and physical gifts so vast, that Edie comes off as a monster whose random beatings will never defeat her magnificent daughter. The major detriment to credibility, however, is Charlie's voice, preternaturally sophisticated and mournful even for an unathletic, bookish boy. Whitney's humor and sympathy carry the tale, however, and the scenes of sibling bonding may raise a tear or two. (May) FYI: Whitney has written mysteries under the names Hialeah Jackson and Polly Jackson.