FICTION : COURTING EMMA HOWE by Margaret A. Robinson (Adler & Adler: $16.95; 212 pp.).

Arthur Smollett--a sailor turned farmer in turn-of-the-century Washington state--is writing a "nothing special" letter to Emma Howe, a horse-faced homely Vermont spinster living with her parents. Arthur had read a poem of Emma's in a nature magazine; a correspondence developed, photographs were exchanged. Now, at the end of this letter, Arthur adds a postscript: a marriage proposal.

Thus begins Margaret Robinson's second novel, a novel as soft and sweet as a summer morning in the country. Emma breaks with her family, a painfully necessary liberation. Alone, with little money and no one to turn to for support, Emma journeys across the country.

The ensuing courtship of Emma is filled with pain, love, despair, humor. It ends with knowledge, that knowledge of self and other that can transmute one's life.

Robinson tells the story with wonderful and loving sensitivity. It is a quiet story; there are no villains to be dealt with, no forces of Nature to be surmounted. With a few broad strokes, Robinson creates landscape, weather, characters--hints of beauty, place, personality--barely sufficient to fill out the story of Emma and Arthur.

"Courting Emma Howe" is finely styled. Written with impeccable rhythm and a moving humanity, this is a book most readers will find hard to put down.

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