COURTING EMMA HOWE By Margaret A. Robinson Adler & Adler. 204 pp. $16.95

"Courting Emma Howe" is an unconventional, turn-of-the-century romance brimming with old-fashioned virtues. Plain-spoken, spirited and observant, it tells the story of two shy, solitary and homely people who dare to overturn the set pattern of their lives by planning marriage, although they know each other only through letters and live 3,000 miles apart.

Emma Howe is the unlikely heroine, a 25-year-old seamstress with buck teeth who helps her colorless mother and adored father manage two eccentric aunts. When Arthur Smollett, a homesteader in Washington state, reads her poem in a nature magazine, he begins a correspondence that grows into a marriage proposal.

Emma leaves Vermont against her family's wishes, traveling by train to join him, only to find he is not what she imagined: "... he was shorter than she thought. Much shorter. And he had straight blond hair ... She'd never been attracted to blond men, she realized all at once. He had a scabbled-over cut on his chin ... As ... his mouth smiled a greeting, his eyes, for a moment, revealed the look of a wary animal ... what had she gone and done?"

Arthur thinks Emma too unyielding and independent, and her New England accent reminds him of his mother, of whom he wrote, "I can summon up few truly pleasant memories except that she had a light hand with biscuits." The romance seems destined to fail.

The novel's charm lies in this mismatch of expectations and reality, but it also draws strength from the stubbornness of its characters. Arthur's will cleared his little patch of misty wilderness, and Emma, too, has gumption -- she resists the spinster role even before she meets Arthur, running her own business and having a brief love affair with a French Canadian farm worker her parents disapproved of. She travels cross-country alone, with dignity, but also open to new sensations and experiences -- champagne and oysters, for example, with a twice-married widow who "in her purple hat, with high color in her cheeks, reminded Emma of an azalea," a flower her aunt condemned as "brazen." The characters she meets are all emblematic of both the risks and rewards of deciding to shape her own life.

Leaving despite her father's curse is hardest for Emma, but the courage it takes gives the novel its weight. Their relationship is the most powerful in the story. He charges her with impropriety, but it is clearly in his interest for Emma to stay on as sympathetic companion to him and caretaker of the family. That Emma fights in her own interest and can imagine a self beyond the plain, handy spinster other people see is moving and invigorating.

Arthur is more conventional, less flexible -- he mildly desires a flirtatious teen-age neighbor, for example, but is dismayed when Emma guides their lovemaking -- yet it is touching to see him reach out from his spare, self-made life toward another heart. He yearns for someone who could "sit together quietly ... hearing the fire crackle, smelling woodsmoke, damp earth and coffee ... Could he sit in this room that he'd built with his two hands and, in a private, inner, wordless place, be known by her?" As they work through the obstacles of disappointment and unfamiliarity to forge a marriage, one wants to see them succeed.

Although there is some sentimentality toward the end, the novel is admirably straightforward, with entertaining details of rural life and travel -- the difficulty of undoing 27 tiny buttons under a modesty-protecting "chin-to-toe Pullman coat," the tricks of canning albacore, the drama of clearing a giant stump from a field. The only anachronistic note is the treatment of Emma's sexuality; but the other common contemporary theme of self-determination, especially for women, merges quite successfully with the pioneer spirit to create an engaging portrait of the period. The reviewer is a Washington writer and critic.