A native of Corvallis, Ore., Crew (Children of the River) turns to local history for the often bizarre plot of this strained novel set in 1903. Sixteen-year-old Eva Mae Hurt, an actual person who is fictionalized as this story's narrator, is active in the Salvation Army. When Franz Edmund Creffield, a handsome newcomer with "pale and piercing eyes," sets up his own ministry, Eva Mae and other girls become obsessed with him and his teachings ("Come away from the world and all its evils"; "If you have money, give it to God"). Before long Creffield "issues a directive" that his followers throw their finery into bonfires and don strange-looking smock dresses. The tale then becomes a stew of oddities: The man takes them on an island retreat and announces that one girl will be chosen to be the "mother of the Second Christ" (Creffield will father the child), then has his way, sexually, with most, if not all, of them. Desperate relatives have various girls declared insane and sent to asylums for rehabilitation; girls are slowly "cured" but then relapse into worshipping Creffield. When suicides and murder ensue, they seem almost the most ordinary developments here. Unfortunately, in sticking to the facts of this real-life melodrama, Crew moves into the story too quickly to give Eva Mae and her fellow victims enough motivation for their utter vulnerability to Creffield. As a result, the events seem only weird, without much personal relevance or resonance for contemporary readers. Illustrated with black-and-white photos of key sites. Ages 12-up. (Feb.)