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Easton, Pennsylvania, Times Observer

Somewhere, Eudora Welty's smiling. The same could be said for William Faulkner, providing he's sober enough for reading.

The reason?

Their tradition of Southern writing -- a distinctive genre marked by a sweeping ambition to make culture a character on par with the living -- is alive and well in the gripping new novel "Pug Sheridan" ($15, Autumn Leaves Publishing).

First-time author Sandra Cline's tale of a rural Alabama trapped between two centuries in the days leading up to World War I is romantic, spiritual and soothing. But it burns with something deeper, a social conscience that crosses generations.

Pug, her real name's Sadie Lou, is born into a genteel but eccentric family living in the typical Alabama hamlet of Village Springs.

Springs, it turns out, are the catalyst behind her family's good fortune. T.H. Sheridan, the heroine's father, and his brother Finas built a prosperous resort around artesian mineral wells found on their property. It's a commonly held belief the waters are rich in healing properties.

Centered around a large man-made lake, the vacation spot becomes an oasis from the ugly realities of racism common to the rest of Alabama. Blacks and whites gather together at Sheridan Lake, albeit even as they segregate themselves on opposite shores.

Born into this anomaly of a family is Pug, a self-professed storyteller and poetess with a notion that man-made divisions between people are nothing short of bunk. By the time she is 10 years old, her cackle of friends includes a deserted black child named Egypt; and Indian orphan, Fawn; a miller's daughter, Newt; the abused sisters Violet and Ruby; and Fanny, the offspring of a severely misguided minister.

Together they are the Seven Sisters, a secret society devoid of racial taboos. Rather, their frequent meetings in the secret Horseshoe Cave are opportunities for mixing the stories and legends of various cultures: American Indian, black, Celtic and homespun mountain legend.

Inevitably, however, their secret is revealed and the Seven Sisters become the target, as well as the antithesis, of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.

Adventure follows at a dizzying pace as Pug and her band of sisters struggle to stand against the ignorance of racial prejudice, even as the long-held mysteries of Egypt's and Fawn's true identities are revealed.

Cline's derringer-toting protagonist, Pug, narrates the story in beautifully well-paced detail. Meandering moments, with descriptions of flower-dotted hillsides and fog-tinged sunrises, are balanced with swiftly terrifying scenes depicting Klan terror: cross burnings, floggings and sexual violence.

Plucky Pug prevails, but not without scars she'll carry the rest of her life. Some will argue that Cline goes where many have gone before and their point is fair. But in a day and age where literature appears to seek out trends more than depth, "Pug Sheridan" is a delightful attempt to tell a story rather than sell one.

Here's hoping Cline receives commercial success as gravy.