Lynn Cullen, . . HarperCollins, $15.95 (160pp) ISBN 978-0-06-029133-4

Set in 1821 Indiana, Cullen's (The Mightiest Heart) well-worn tale of a pioneer girl's hardships begins on a grim note and becomes increasingly dismal as characters wallow in their separate woes. Nelly, along with her older brother, is still grieving for their dead mother when their long-absent father, a trapper, returns home with a city bride named Margery. Appalled by her delicate manners and young age, the children make their stepmother's life miserable. The heavy aura of discontent overshadows potentially tender moments. When Pa comes in one day bearing gifts, a catamount pelt for his wife and a catamount kitten for his daughter, more trouble brews. Margery will not accept the fur ("How could I ever find happiness in something that deprived a creature of its life?" she says primly but illogically, considering her husband's work). Nelly, in turn, continues to give Margery the cold shoulder even when she helps save the kitten's life. Characters never do manage to connect with one another. It takes a tragedy to make Nelly realize her stepmother's virtues, and by then, it is too late for her to beg forgiveness. Readers may have trouble feeling compassion for any of the players in this colorless melodrama; while the author succeeds in expressing frontier stoicism and describing settlers' exploitation of animals, her writing here lacks subtlety and depth. Ages 8-12. (Mar.)