Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Eugene-O'Neill taught us that in latter days the old tenting grounds of the Puritans have been rife with sin and sinners. Beginning novelist Philip D. Wheaton takes up this theme and decorates it with an icing of melodrama. The key word here is decorates. In spite of gothic elements, in spite of murder, arson, accidental deaths, suicides, multiple adulteries that raise baffling questions about paternity, and coincidences that verge on claptrap, in spite of Nature turning rancorous and sending a flood that kills one of the major characters in his book. Wheaton offers a rather genial view of New England. The narrator, Willie, now in his 50s and primed for nostalgia, looks back at the summer of 1938 when he was 12 and sees it as a time of wonder -- most of it due to his 16-year-old sister, a rare treasure misnamed Penny.

Both were neglected during their Iowa childhood and, in a sense, orphaned a second time when their parents died in an auto crash. Addie and Lambot, their unmarried aunt and uncle (and Freudian specimens in their passion for secrecy), adopt the orphans and settle them on a Yankee farm near the milltown of Eastfield. It is a one-industry town and, as chief shareholders of the mill, Penny and Willie recognize that an ongoing strike threatens their future and the lifeblood of Eastfield besides. Penny believes that instead of being a spear carrier, she ought to have a speaking role in affairs concerning the mill, and she regards Aunt Addie's efforts to shut off her questions as typical adult conspiracy.

Penny can be a Goody Two Shoes when she wants. But most of the time she is a rebel with a variety of vague causes, a non-stop reader, a very Cartesian doubter joined to a know-it-all, an innocent who goes skinny-dipping with Brother Willie and ruminates over puritanism gone astray and converted into "desire under the elms." She has a detective's persistence in ferreting out neighborhood secrets but discovers the facts about her paternity when they are no longer useful.

The genius of Sherlock Holmes had no appreciable effort on Dr. Watson's IQ. Penny's talents, on the other hand, do rub off on Willie. Her insights and outsights -- she has a poet's sharp but tender eye for the natural world -- her wit and fantasizing, her patchy book-wisdom and her warnings against arrogance by way of quoting Shelley's "Ozymandias," tease and quicken Willie's spirit. This idyllic sibling relationship has its lapses, and Willie is angry, scornful, jealous, alarmed and skeptical when Penny talks about motherhood and her urge to "make a baby." Her list of eligibles in the enterprise includes a minister, the mill manager and a loafer of primitive understanding called Adam.

Penny's conflict with Aunt Addie gives the story its soundest dramatic values -- soundest because they rest on differences in character. Penny believes there's no substitute for youth while Addie believes there's no substitute for virtue. Unfortunately Addie confuses virtue with propreity and cherishes her knowledge of what nice girls should and should not do as Moses cherished the Commandments. All the same she has a streak of sentiment and would be as appalled by witch burning as by Women's Lib.

Her reconciliation with Penny moves the story toward its less-than-inevitable happy ending. A skeptical reader might argue that the reconciliation couldn't have taken place and that it's a mere fiction that order can spring out of disorder faster than you can spell razzamatazz.

If Wheaton were reproached for trying to con us with a New England that never was, he would maintain that the world of "Razzmatazz" is a product of Willie's nostalgia. It is unlikely, with the passage of 40 years, that Willie would remember the austerities of the Depression or see the strikers who closed down his family's mill as desperate men afraid of common evils like hunger and eviction from their homes. What Willie passes on to us, then, is a vision colored -- prejudiced if you will -- by middle-class values. Wheaton's heroine, who quarrels from first to last with those values, will remind readers of the teen-age Lillian Hellman of "Pentimento." But the exuberance with which Penny is drawn establishes her as a distinct and even distinguished creation and ensures that "Razzmatazz" will stand high among the year's first novels.