THE MINISTER'S DAUGHTER, by Julie Hearn, Simon & Schuster, $16.95.

Two young girls from diverse backgrounds frame this story: Nell, the rough and wild granddaughter of the "cunning woman" who has the "gift of healing," and Grace, the refined and beautiful daughter of a no-nonsense Puritan minister.

While Nell learns herbal secrets from a failing granny, Grace harbors her own secret, the result of "frolics" with the blacksmith's son. To divert attention from a thickening waistline, Grace coerces her young sister, Patience, to participate with feigned hallucinations blaming Granny and Nell of witchcraft against her.

"The Minister's Daughter" is an enthralling novel set in England during the Civil War. Fueled by marked diversity of social class and religious intolerance, the suspicion of witchcraft is heaped on unsuspecting poor and weak individuals.

The narration is interspersed with "Confessions of Patience Madden," which serve as touch points to an agitated populace pointing fingers at Granny (she nearly drowns as the citizens test her ability to swim) and Nell, who ultimately feels the chafing rope of the gallows. "The rope is round her neck, as thick as an arm, and the minister is right in front of her, telling her to make peace with the Lord . . . she keeps her head up and looks the minister straight in the eye. Appalled he stares back at her, his speech faltering, the pages of his Bible fluttering in the wind."

"The Minister's Daughter" is sprinkled with sensual images such as "pink blossoms shake like fairy fists" and "giant globes of mistletoe." It is not hard to visualize the lavish mansion of the minister compared to a "turnip-shaped hole in the thatch" of Granny's scanty hut.

Hearne portrays memorable characters with careful attention to detail. Tom Towser, the supposed father of Grace's child, has "a mop of corn-colored hair and a cleft in his chin so deep, it might have been pressed there by his guardian angel. He is too ungainly; too unfledged, as yet, to be truly handsome. But he will be."

Granny, the village healer and midwife, has had no rest for days: "She is dog-tired when she opens her eyes. And her bones, as she clambers down from the roof space, grind in their sockets like pestles in empty mortars."

The strong thread throughout the novel is Nell, "an impudent chit of a girl" who "will never be a dainty thing" and emerges as a heroine for anyone to cheer and care for. And we do!

Hearne was born near Oxford, England, and has worked as an editor and freelance writer for many years. "The Minister's Daughter" is her first novel to be published in the United States.

E-mail: [email protected]