Rite-of-passage tale of rural New York

The South African Quirt, by Walter D. Edmonds. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 192 pp. Illustrated. $14.95. Walter Edmonds, author of the classic ``Drums along the Mohawk'' and other historical novels, now in his 80s, turns once again to the rural landscape of upstate New York, this time in an autobiographical novel.

It is late summer of 1915, a turning point in the life of a shy 12-year-old boy named Natty Dunston, who is edging -- only half knowingly -- toward a frightening confrontation with his father, a man whose icy disdain is broken only by outbursts of a white-hot temper.

The stage is set when Mr. Dunston, an international lawyer and ``gentleman farmer,'' receives a gift in the mail from a legal colleague in far-off Johannesburg: a long whip made of rhinoceros hide with a braided lash. No one in upstate New York has seen a whip quite as nasty as this South African quirt. Its menace hangs like the certainty of an approaching storm over the warm September days.

Illustrated with old-fashioned drawings of farm life, ``The South African Quirt'' instantly proclaims itself as a prime example of the traditional rite-of-passage novel of adolescence. The pleasure of reading this straightforward, poised, and economical narrative confirms how close to perfect an example of the genre it is.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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