Deirdre McNamer's sentences are as clean as a field of grass. That's one reason "Rima in the Weeds" is a fine novel. The other reason is that McNamer knows what it feels like to be an 11-year-old girl.

McNamer gives us, in Margaret Greenfield, a funny and wonderful Western character. Margaret lives in a small town in northern Montana, in 1962 - just as McNamer did.She gives us other engaging characters, too, enough to populate a village. The story revolves around a young unwed mother who is dating a withdrawn handsome man, a man whose main emotion is pride at working in the defense industry. There's also a waitress who wants to flee and go to business school, and the beautician who promises to help her find a good hairdresser wherever she moves.

McNamer achieves what the best Southern writers do - she makes us understand the richness and diversity of life in a small town.

Of all her characters, Margaret is the richest.

Margaret is a scrawny, bespectacled child. She is also perceptive. She can tell when something important is going to happen before it happens. Important and dramatic things happen to Margaret every day, actually.

When you read this book, you will remember your own childhood. Back then every mundane event held secret possibilities. There was time for anything. If you wanted to, you could spend every afternoon having play-adventures among the tall weeds. Or you could drape flimsy lingerie over your clothes, spray yourself with your mother's perfume and go stand on the corner and sell lemonade.

How did McNamer create such a true character, we asked her in a recent phone interview.

"For some reason that I don't completely understand, my own memories until the age of 11 or 12 are very vivid," she said, adding that her mind has, perhaps mercifully, wrapped a veil over the events of her teenage years.

McNamer's family lived in Conrad, Mont. ("a real dull town in wheat-farming country"), until she was 10. Then they moved to Cutbank ("a much more raw town . . . very often the coldest spot in the nation"), where they lived until she graduated from high school.

The town in her novel is a composite of those two towns. And Margaret is, she said, a lot like she was, only braver.

McNamer said, "I grew up in a fairly secure family, the oldest of five children. I grew up thinking I could do anything I wanted to do."

Something about the safety of her childhood and the encouragement her parents gave her to imagine and to read is reflected in her stories, she said. The family didn't buy a TV until McNamer was a teen.

She remembers most vividly playing long elaborate games with her friends - and watching grownups.

"Small towns are very dramatic, in their own way. Anyone who came back home, I remember wondering about them a lot," said McNamer. "Anyone who had a mysterious sorrow, or became an alcoholic, or an adulterer, is highly interesting. You knew them before. Now there is a big change.

"When you grow up in a small town you have an innate interest in people who diverge from the norm."

In promoting her book, the publishers call it "an unsentimental portrait of women growing up in a land of limited opportunity and bonechilling loneliness. . . ."

Limited opportunity? Loneliness?

"Those descriptions and terms are what an Easterner might think about Montana," said McNamer. "I suspect that the people in my hometowns won't see this as a bleak portrait at all."

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Author to read from novel

Deirdre McNamer will read from "Rima in the Weed," at A Woman's Place Bookstore, 1400 S. Foothill Drive, at 7:30 pm. Thursday, March 14.

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From "Rima in the Weeds":

"To raise money that spring, margaret's catechism class sold plastic cylinders with f figure of the Virgin Mary inside. There were beige and looked, on the outside, like foot-long rockets. A seam ran from base to tip , and parted like cathedral doors to reveal the praying woman inside. They cost two dollars a piece. Anyone who solde three of them got to name an African pagan baby who would be baptized by missionaries when the money was sent in. Margaret sold six and named her babies Audrey and Gidget."