Read 'Marie Blythe,' but only to remember its author; Marie Blythe, by Howard Frank Mosher. New York: Viking. 455 pp. $17.95.
Howard Frank Mosher isn't one of your standard, brand-name American writers. Yet his 1977 first novel, ''Disappearances,'' compares favorably with the best ones of recent years.
In that book, Mosher told of a fractious French-Canadian family whose members vigorously resisted being tamed by contact with the 20th century. And he created the fictional territory of Kingdom County, a mostly wilderness area of northern Vermont near the Canadian border. This is a territory developed by way of fur trapping, logging, and - in its headiest day - bootlegging. ''Disappearances'' was fueled by what seemed boundless comic energy and spilled over with outrageous and wonderful tall tales, many of them worthy of Mark Twain.
A second book, ''Where the Rivers Flow North'' (1978), collected half a dozen nondescript short stories that appeared to be basically outtakes from Mosher's novel. Already it was evident he'd be revisiting and reexamining Kingdom County and its inhabitants in approximately the same way William Faulkner treated his invention, Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi.
More important, the second book included the title novella - a rich regional tragicomedy about the relationships and the inevitable fates of an aging logger and his Indian housekeeper - hardy and stoical anachronisms alike. This is one of the best short novels of our time, a brilliantly detailed chunk of Americana that has the narrative density and emotional force of ballad or myth.
Now comes ''Marie Blythe,'' a big novel also set mainly in Mosher's Kingdom County. The story encompasses numerous people's lives and spans the quarter century from 1899 to 1925 - and, I regret to report, it seems to go on forever.
At the outset, several French-Canadian families fleeing a smallpox epidemic travel south to work and live in Hell's Gate, a township owned and overseen by Capt. Abraham Benedict. His woodworking factory supplies office furniture to purchasers throughout the United States. The focal character is eight-year-old Marie Blair, who will soon be orphaned. She is menaced by various catastrophes, and left to shift heroically for herself.
To encapsulate: After the deaths of her parents, Marie spends two years on the road. She travels with a band of gypsies (one of whom renames her ''Marie Blythe''), works as a chimney sweep, manages a decrepit trained bear, and (dressed as a boy) wrestles all comers. Returning to Hell's Gate, she becomes the Benedicts' housemaid and the pre-adolescent lover of young master Abie Benedict, an intemperate rakehell with a frightening streak of irrational cruelty in him.
Marie's illegitimate baby is born dead, in a swamp; she leaves again, tramps around northern New England for several years doing odd jobs and seeing the successive men in her life taken away by savage twists of fate. Stricken with illness, she eventually becomes a nurse. Finally learning to read and write, she next becomes the village schoolteacher (back at Hell's Gate again).
Following his father's death, Abie, now a war hero, mismanages the township into bankruptcy and sells off its property at auction. Marie comes upon the late Captain Benedict's diaries and learns a secret that leads her to a final confrontation with Abie - just as an enormous fire (which has been repeatedly foreshadowed, almost since the novel's beginning) reduces Hell's Gate to ashes.
It is undoubtedly unkind to say so, but all I could think of during those climactic pages when Marie was racing through the forest alongside terrified minks and muskrats was the forest fire in Walt Disney's ''Bambi.''
I trudged through this overcrowded story with gathering exhaustion and disbelief, looking for things to admire. There are just a few: nicely detailed pictures of men and women at work (Mosher has no peer at describing exactly how outdoor jobs of all kinds are done); background stories about many of the novel's secondary and peripheral characters - often more interesting than the main action; a vivid account of 10-year-old Marie stalking and killing a deer, filled with superb images of scene and weather and telling evidence of her natural instincts.
''Marie Blythe'' is formula fiction. Its heroine is introduced to us as a near-visionary, marked by a ''remote solitude'' and ''a tendency to daydream about the future.'' She also hunts and traps and shoots would-be fur thieves, builds privies, teaches boys how to play baseball. And she's a firm, courageous defender of the rights of the variously downtrodden.
I could go on about the facile dramatic situations, impossible coincidences, hairbreadth escapes, and operatic emotions that possess this novel's people. But there's little point in judging this novel by standards that, clearly, don't apply to it. It's smooth and entertaining while you're reading it, but its characters have no depth, and its narrative no resonance. For all the wealth of period and local detail, it feels lightweight.
Why, then, is this novel of interest at all? Because Howard Frank Mosher is, I'd argue. And because it's always worth observing what a really first-rate writer is attempting. Here, I'm convinced, he has crafted a pure potboiler, aimed at the audience for romantic-saga fiction. If I thought he'd used up a storehouse of valuable material on this very unworthy conception, I'd be worried about Mosher's future. But I see no signs that his imagination is running dry. Perhaps if we'd all paid more attention to ''Disappearances'' and ''Where the Rivers Flow North,'' they'd have been followed by a book worthy to stand beside them. Perhaps ''Marie Blythe'' will earn a bundle and finance the writing of future novels comparable to Mosher's first one. I surely hope so.