For ages 11-14. A young girl growing up on the road

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Cat, Herself, by Mollie Hunter. New York: Harper & Row. 279 pp. $12.50. (Ages 11-14.) Mollie Hunter's strong prose couples unrelenting vigor with the grace of a poet. One of the strongest writers for young adults in our time, she presents readers of her newest book with a non-stereotyped female protagonist.

Catriona McPhie, called ``Cat,'' is the daughter of a traveling tinker. The travelers, or ``The Mist People,'' as they are called, have no actual home.

They spend time working in one location and then move on to other work when they are through -- disappearing like the mist on the Scottish Highlands. Their unconventional nomadic life style causes some tense run-ins with the local police and townspeople, particularly about the neglect of their children's education.

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Cat is a singular 10-year-old. She insists that her father teach her how to train dogs, catch salmon, and fish for pearls, just like the men. As we see her mature into young womanhood (she is 16 at the end of the novel), she refuses to marry fellow traveler Charlie Drummond, except on her own terms. She speaks not just for herself but for the travelers, whose continued existence seems threatened by modern Scotland in the 1970s: ``Just to be me. Just to be Cat, herself. Always.''

Hunter's book is about a passion for life. She sweeps along in her compelling tale issues of birth, death, first love, marriage, individuality, and a sense of community. Other writers for adolescents have written about similar themes with much less skill.

What is ultimately satisfying about ``Cat, Herself'' is its piercing insight into the human condition. A central portion of the novel places the McPhies in the north country of Scotland. Old Nan, Cat's grandmother, relates a local fairy tale with its supposed location in the background. It is a magic moment as the intergenerational family listens to her hushed words echo into the shimmering sea. Old Nan offers this:

``It makes no difference how far you travel or how many years you spend on the road. There's always something that calls you back to some place that feels special to you.'' Hunter has brought her readers once again to her native Scotland, and it is indeed an enchanted place.

Hunter, whose books include ``A Sound of Chariots'' and ``The Stronghold'' (winner of the British Carnegie Medal), once described three qualities she feels must be allied with a writer's inborn talent: passion, technique, and insight. Her latest book, ``Cat, Herself'' (titled ``I'll Go My Own Way'' in Great Britain), demonstrates her possession of all three.

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