PRINCE EDWARD

By Dennis McFarland. Henry Holt. 354 pp. $25 Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic of Southern literature that many would like to emulate. Donna Tartt captured something of Lee's achievement in The Little Friend, but by an approach that was only half-worshipful -- the other half was parodic. At first glance, Dennis McFarland's Prince Edward looks like a wholeheartedly earnest effort to succeed where Lee had already succeeded -- by straining the issues of the Southern civil rights struggle through the perception of a sensitive 10-year-old.

McFarland sets his story almost 50 years ago, and at first he seems to suffuse it in a haze of nostalgia. The year is 1959, the locale is rural Virginia, and McFarland, whose prose is richly and beautifully detailed, burnishes every facet of that long-gone time and place to a virtually flawless verisimilitude, down to "the burnt plastic odor of [a] flashbulb."

The narrative stance is clearly retrospective, but McFarland rarely offers any benefit of hindsight; instead he keeps us situated in the current consciousness of his 10-year-old narrator, Benjamin Rome. Must we really experience the trials of puberty one more time, when Ben discovers half a pack of pornographic playing cards?

McFarland renders Ben's young psyche as faithfully and convincingly as he does all the period detail; the drawback is that Ben's grasp of the surrounding issues is poor. McFarland has to drop out of Ben's voice to explicate the political background, a real and complicated historical situation in which white residents of Prince Edward County resisted federal school desegregation orders by closing the public schools and opening private ones for whites only. These political maneuvers are hard to dramatize; they make for some dry passages, but once they are digested Ben's daily experience acquires a larger resonance.

Ben is the youngest of three children; his father, R.C. Rome, runs a chicken farm on land owned by his father, Daddy Cary. The old patriarch lives in the big house, indulging his tyrannical bent, while R.C. and his wife and children are somewhere between proprietors and tenants. Since they are white, their status is much superior to that of the black tenant family on the place: Granny Mays; her son, Julius; and his son, Burghardt, who's about Ben's age, works in the chicken operation with him and is his closest friend. Without giving the matter much thought, Ben expects to go to the new private school in the fall. That Burghardt won't be going at all bothers him only dimly at first. Granny Mays, distinguished by her possession of 40 books, means to homeschool her grandson if the public schools don't open.

Like most solitary children in literary novels, Benjamin Rome is a natural spy. He likes to watch Granny Mays do "her speaking" in the woods -- episodes that are some of the book's strongest, combining elements of prayer, oratory and argument with God: " 'I come to speak on the daily hardships of my people, to say for my people, justice for my people,' and she pretended that the trees were listening." Ben absorbs her soliloquies without really getting them. By peering through various other knotholes, he eventually figures out that his grandfather, Daddy Cary, deliberately put the pornographic playing cards in his way, that Burghardt has the other half of the deck, and that Daddy Cary plans to molest both boys sexually: his own grandson and his black companion. Ben wriggles loose from this scheme, though not entirely unscathed; Burghardt, influenced by bribes as well as threats, goes along with it.

Patiently piling up the details, McFarland creates a mirror relationship between the public wickedness of privatizing the schools in a way that shuts off all access to education for blacks and the private nastiness of the Rome family. Daddy Cary's birthday party, a festivity in which the whole community takes part, reveals him to be as depraved and malevolent as the most decadent Roman emperor. We get no direct evidence, for Ben has none, but we suppose that Daddy Cary is responsible for R.C.'s sullen, angry withdrawal. Ben's mother is miserable to the point of regular hysterical breakdowns. His brother Al is a moderately charming ne'er-do-well in the early stages of a petty criminal career; his sister Lainie lives wretchedly at home, cheated of her chance at college by an accidental pregnancy and hasty marriage to a youth now absent for military training. All of that is normal for Ben, and McFarland is subtle in filtering the recognition, for us and for him, of just how sick the situation is: "It was our custom for me to move forward as he whipped me, and thus for us to inscribe a circle. Oddly, I moved on tiptoe, as if the floor were hot coals, and more oddly, I squeezed Daddy's hand, the center of our circle, throughout, as if for solace."

Despite the superficial resemblances, Prince Edward isn't trying to replicate To Kill a Mockingbird at all. In Lee's novel the Finch family's eccentric but righteously wholesome home life triumphs over evil; in McFarland's, the Romes' family life is the root of the evil. The issue, as McFarland delicately unfolds it, is everyone's tacit agreement to endure the unspeakable in silence, whether it's the private horror of Daddy Cary's molestations or the howling public injustice of shutting half the population out of the schools. Interrupted in the study of his cards, Ben frets that his mother may find them where he's hastily shoved them under the bed. When he returns, they are in fact missing, but no one ever says anything about it: "Here was an outcome I hadn't considered -- that I would never see the missing cards and their dirty pictures again, their discovery and disappearance would simply never be mentioned, and life would go on as usual."

In Prince Edward Dennis McFarland deliberately withholds the kind of dramatic catharses found in To Kill a Mockingbird, in order to be truer to real life -- more faithful in demonstrating how people enabled and protected the abuse of power in the segregation years by conspiracies of silence on the small scale and the great. *

Madison Smartt Bell's most recent novel is "Anything Goes." "The Stone That the Builder Refused," the final volume of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, is forthcoming this fall.