ROAD SONG By Natalie Kusz Farrar Straus Giroux. 258 pp. $18.95

AT THE AGE of 27 Natalie Kusz has had an extraordinary life, and from it she has fashioned an uncommonly arresting, affecting book. Were a literary pigeonhole required for Road Song it would be that of "early autobiography," a genre that has become immensely popular among American writers in recent years; but unlike most books in that category Road Song is less about self-discovery than about survival and self-reconstruction, so in the end it is more sui generis than anything else.

Kusz is the child of unusual parents: a father who as a boy was one of thousands "dispersed and wandering across Europe, fleeing the Nazi invasions," and a mother who once called herself "a loner, foremost a child of the Creator, in a youth-oriented, male, hedonistic, secular-minded world." They found each other in California in the 1950s and married after a long, peculiar courtship. In time they settled into middle-class life, but it was never really to their tastes and so they broke away from it; in 1969 they packed up their four children -- Natalie, at 6, was the eldest -- and headed north from Los Angeles to Alaska.

"Though the new place we came to was hard," Kusz writes, "we had come to it exhilarated and hopeful, expecting roughness and finding it, when we arrived, more to our taste than all we had relinquished behind us." Though it was years before they had enough money to build a decent house, they soon bought a big piece of land and began to carve out a new, if precarious, life.

Then, after only a few months, that life was thrown into turmoil. Coming home from school one day, Natalie was attacked by a husky chained near a neighbor's dwelling. When her mother arrived, she found a gruesome sight: "She saw one side of my face gone, one red cavity with nerves hanging out, scraps of dead leaves stuck on to the mess. The other eye might be gone, too; it was hard to tell. Scalp had been torn away from my skull on that side, and the gashes reached to my forehead, my lips, had left my nose tipped wide at the nostrils." The doctors expected her to die: "I had sustained over one hundred lacerations from the shoulders up, and had lost my left cheekbone along with my eye . . . Dr. Butler brushed the surgical cap from his head and held it, twisting it in his hands. His eyes were red as he looked up, explaining as kindly as it seemed he could. A dog's mouth, he said, was filthy, filthier than sewage, and all of that impurity had passed into my body. They had spent four hours just cleaning out the wounds, pulling out dirt and old berry leaves and dog feces. Even with heavy antibiotics, I would likely have massive infections, and they would probably spread into my brain."

Infections occurred, but brain damage did not. It took innumerable operations and must have come at unbearable financial cost -- where the money came from isn't always clear in Kusz's account -- but after years of pain and doubt Natalie managed to regain much of the life that the dog had torn away from her. Though the surgeons were unable to restore the bone structure of her face to the extent that she could wear an artificial eye -- she uses an eyepatch -- otherwise they succeeded in giving Natalie the appearance of normality and thus permitted her to get on with her life.

It was a prolonged, painful, difficult process. Readers looking for a standard-issue story of triumph over adversity and psychological uplift will not find it in Road Song, for Kusz is a tough, unsparing, unsentimental chronicler of her own recovery. At school she was teased cruelly; fourth-grade boys called her "pirate" and "cylops" and later, when she gained weight, "I became 'Hindenberg' and 'Cycle 3,' after a dog food for overweight pets." Her response was to teach herself how to fight:

"It was natural, then, after learning violence, that I came to use it for myself, and somewhere in those high-school or junior-high years I found fighting to be the first real thing I could do that would impress people, that could make them, somehow, like me; or if not like me, exactly, then avoid me -- or even find something different to ridicule. After a particularly bruising scrap between me and a boy, his friends would hand him toilet paper and spit out at me, 'You're not even a girl; you're a guy.' Yet this to me seemed a preferable jeer, less savage or harmful, than a comment on my face or my size."

She was, as she readily acknowledges, a delinquent, bringing worry and grief to her parents, uncertainty to her siblings. Yet they stuck by her with clannish ferocity. The family had a "belief in itself as a sure and impenetrable force," and it stuck together against the world outside: "We were, as my parents had said, a small country, sufficient as far as possible in ourselves, each a necessary member, each holding on to the others, bearing them along." Invariably their reaction to adversity -- Natalie's accident, their mother's premature death, their father's debilitation -- was to draw ever tighter together, to close in the wagons.

Yet if they were in that sense insular, in others they were open to the world. Road Song is anything but a story of survival against hostility and indifference. Instead, from the moment of their departure from Los Angeles, it is a tale of common kindness. Heading north on their journey into the unknown they encountered a "fresh sort of kindness {that} was new, not to the world, but only to us, and . . . my parents were seeing what they had imagined in their stories all along: people more kind than we were ourselves." The boys at school may have been mean, but they were the exceptions. When the family first arrived they were given food and shelter by people they did not know; after the attack on Natalie they were given money and prayers and anything else they needed, in an outpouring of kindness that never ceased.

Natalie needed every bit of it: first because of her awful injuries, then because of her sullen rebellion, then because of the pregnancy that she chose to carry to term. With this book she has repaid all of it in ample measure. There is no gloating here, no self-righteous preening, no self-celebration; Natalie Kusz knows that she is as much in debt to the selfless support of others as she is to her own stubborn courage, and she uses these pages to tell us about all of those who helped her -- her parents and sisters and brother, the surgeons and nurses, the neighbors and distant relatives. All of which is to say that if Road Song is, to be sure, a story of pain and sacrifice and courage, even more it is a story of community.