BETSY BYARS, author of The Pinballs, here has tackled the tough subject of guilt - that particular kind of guilt we feel after the death of someone close. Could we have prevented it? Why did we say what we did?

In this case, it's the death of Jimmie Little's ne'er-do-well Uncle Pete, who one cold December day, after too many beers at Harry's Bar and Grill, accepts a dare and tries to walk across a frozen river. The inevitable happens Pete falls through the ice and drowns, leaving young Jimmie, a witness of the accident, with the self-reproaching questionof "Why didn't I stop him?"

The rest of the book is the account of how Jimmie comes to terms with his guilt and anger, not only at himself but at his busybody friend, Conrad Pugh, and the small world of the mining village where he lives with his mother and sister. Jimmy finally finds the heating that he needs in his somewhat eccentric family - "They were the ones . . . who could help him. They were like a cocoon, something to break out of one day when he was ready, but right now he wanted to join them."

It's not a simple story. The working out of such complex emotions never is, and the subtleties of redemption may be lost on some of Byars' younger readers. But for children who've had a taste of being made to grow up quickly, Byars offers some solace as well as an absorbing narrative.