AT 3 O'CLOCK ON A JUNE afternoon in 1912, the scene at a West Virginia mine owner's house is a "regular tableau vivant," as one of the daughters describes it. Papa is down at the tennis court, Mother overseeing her three girls, the girls themselves lolling in their white summer dresses among a trio of admiring young men. But these young men are armed detectives, sent to guard against striking miners; and when Althea, the family coquette, poses for her picture on the rose-covered porch, it's with a machine gun standing next to her; and when she flirts with her favorite beau she gets gun grease on her lace peplum.

What a perfect opening for the scapegoat ! Leisurely and richly detailed, this book takes its time, sets the handcarved furniture just so, lovingly arranges its languid, elegant characters -- while all around swarms harsh reality, in the form of rebellious miners and homesick immigrant strikebreakers shipped in from out of state.

It's Mary Rose, the youngest daughter, who introduces us to the family in its initial repose. Mary Rose's chattery voice, hovering dangerously on the edge of cuteness, sets up a faint distrust in the reader; but other voices soon take over to speak with more depth and passion -- the detectives, the dying mine owner, an Italian laborer's wife, and the "Miners' Angel," Mother Jones, among others. Althea the coquette, now grown old and bitter, looks back upon that summer and reminisces sadly: "Oh I was the loveliest thing when I was a girl. Mother had brought me a hat in the Via Condotti in Rome. It was the loveliest thing you ever saw and it cost the earth, pale gray clouds of georgette with pink rosebuds . . . " And Lily, the troublemaker of the daughters, crusades for women's voting rights and rages against the capitalist mine bosses. "Lily," says one of her sisters, "has an ironing-board body and a critical soul . . . . She has always refused to let us not notice things."

This refusal of Lily's is what saves The Scapegoat from being merely a period piece. It gives the novel its tension, its twist of events that keeps the reader's interest. Lily is a perfect example of the naive do-gooder -- morally indignant, with ease, from the safety of her dotted-Swiss world. You can't help liking her -- there's no doubt about her earnestness -- but at the same time you groan and wince for her. Entering a miners' gathering after pointessly crawling through a mine-shaft, Lily is proud that "the dirt of the people" covers her hands and her dress. "She hadn't noticed that the women inside were all as clean as new pins." When she wants to arrange a meeting with a laborer in order to enlighten him with passages from Montaigne, she ties handkerchiefs to trees -- a signal learned from some swashbuckling book. "So much of it was games," the laborer reflects, "-- games with real people and real blood. Jesus."

Real people and real blood win out, of course, in the end. Lily unwittingly causes more violence on her own than any capitalist mine boss would have. Her games backfire, although Lily herself (in a brown silk hat with her ivory wool because "ladies don't wear black with white") slips away scot-free, or almost free.

Mary Lee Settle's last novel, Blood Tie , won the National Book Award in 1978. The prize was well-deserved, but The scapegoat is, I think, an even better book. Like Blood tie , it shows the inner workings of a prodigious variety of people, but these people are somehow closer to us, less brittle, more genuine, their contradictions and self-delusions more subtly dealt with. Hard-bitten Mother Jones ("sitting there dumpy like a sweet little old lady, about the shape of a keg of dynamite") grows as familiar to us as our grandmothers. We see into the very soul of Annunziata Pagano as she coolly, firmly summons the Italian-mama hysteria that will help her control a crisis. We know first-hand that Captain Dan Neill, so worshipped by his men, owes his calm and silence not to courage but to despair; and that the genteel mine owner feels besieged, almost panicked, by the dependency of too many women. And there's an arresting clarity in the picture of Essie Catlett supervising the vegetable gardens of the homeless strikers, hauling her chair out to the weeds and rocking there, issuing instuctions.

Or here is Lily, away from home at last, nursing wounded soldiers behind the battle frontf: "In the stretched silence of the night Lily let herself retreat, for rest from all of them, back into the valley of her mind, almost homesick. She let herself hear the bird voices of her blood sisters. Althea called, 'Lily, I know what you're up to! You can't fool me,' and Mary Rose sang, 'I'm going to tell my mamma on you.' The voices made her smile. The soldiers said that at the front, ten miles away, when the guns stopped, the birds sang."

In one sense, The Scapegoat is a straightforward, linear novel. Its four parts cover, in proper order, a single period from 3 o'clock one afternoon to 8 o'clock the following morning. But in another sense, it's more of an octopus shape, with the repercussions from some events branching out to other events, years later, of which we're given glimpses. When I finished the book, I started re-reading it, telling myself that now I could pick up the hints dropped in Part I. When I found myself in Part Ii, still re-reading, I had to face facts: The Scapegoat is hard to say goodbye to. It's a whole slice of a long-ago world, with its leaves still rustling and its voices still murmuring -- a quiet masterpiece.