Portrait of a girl from the backwoods of North Carolina

Kate Vaiden, by Reynolds Price. New York: Atheneum. 306 pp. $16.95. If, in the comfortable anonymity of, say, an airport, you have ever regarded strangers, wondered who they really were, where they came from, and what events made up their past, ``Kate Vaiden'' may interest you.

This, the most recent novel by Reynolds Price, is an engrossing account of the life of young Miss Vaiden, told from the vantage point of the older Miss Vaiden, the kind of woman about whom you might make several guesses were you to see her in the airport, all of which would be wrong.

Price's mode of narration is effective and time-tested. The mature commentator can look back on the innocence of youth, adding depth and understanding that we wouldn't expect from a narrator in her early teens. And it is the teen-aged Kate, a backwoods North Carolina girl, we learn most about in this novel.

On a visit with her mother to the home of her aunt -- her mother's sister -- something tragic happens. Kate's father suddenly drives up, asks after his wife and is told that she's out for a walk. He leaves to look for her. Later, Kate's aunt tells the eleven-year-old girl what took place: Her distraught father shot Kate's mother and then took his own life.

Her aunt and uncle provide Kate with a home, and author Price examines the following years -- unusual years by any measure. The mature Kate relates them with little editorializing and in a vocabulary one supposes to be of rural North Carolina.

It sounds overly epigrammatic, but the author, a professor at Duke University and a native of the state, ought to know. It does get a bit tedious, however, having the characters drop metaphors with every other breath: strange as thieves; like a dry stick; warm as bricks; like rousing a tree; pretty as baby teeth; white as rice (all of those within a dozen pages).

For the young Kate, incomprehensible events, not decisions, shape her future. But the mature Kate, who tells the story, implies that she has come to an understanding of the relationship between those moments in her youth and what I suppose we can call the cosmic meaning of things. She implies that understanding not by what she divulges but by what she appears to be holding back. Sparse references to what happened or how things turned out hint at a climax to the bits and pieces of the young Kate's life. In good time, the mature woman will not only tell us what it was, but what it means.

It's suspense, however modest, that holds the reader. But interest is assured as well by the telling portrait of a girl forced into womanhood early.

Tension between what we are being told and what we anticipate grows as we near the end of the book and still have not finished with an account of Kate's tumultuous 16th year. Then suddenly the mature Kate announces ``the end -- true story -- every word I know. . . .'' and the wrap up begins.

The novel is hardly a mystery, yet the conclusion has all the earmarks of the traditional mystery story. And we sense that all this wealth of detail coheres and has meaning.

Whether God works his wonders in quite the way Kate concludes is certainly an open point, but the logic of the novel's events is clear and reasonable and, at the end, moving. It echoes in large measure the conclusion of Browning's night-wandering painter, Fra Lippo Lippi: ``This world's no blot for us,/ Nor blank; it means, and means good.''

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