Among the many triumphs of this story of thick and bad blood, none surpasses its depiction of time and place: Oklahoma in the late 1800s, a gritty epoch of guns, whiskey and horses. But this is no mere western shoot-'em-up. Told most often in the voice of young Mattie Lodi, this first novel reverberates with the girl's sadness, spirit and longing. In 1887, when Mattie is 10, her father, John, and his brother, Lafayette ""Fate"" Lodi, leave Kentucky with their families to escape arrest for having violated gun patent law. A preternaturally gifted gunsmith, John vows to forsake his craft. While Fate prospers by treating Indian Territory as a land of outlaw opportunity, John's passage west brings one affliction after another: Mattie's mother dies in Arkansas of a broken heart, and all five children arrive in Oklahoma with scarlet fever. Although Mattie is described as the ""incarnation of human will,"" it's her introspective nature that powers this tale of pride and resentment. Mattie's capacity ""to enter the soul of another... for the sake of mercy"" complicates what might otherwise have seemed a tale too overtly archetypal, too sternly Old Testament. Askew's prose is mesmerizing, saturated with the rhythms of the prophets and patriarchs (as heard by Faulkner rather than Steinbeck). The story she tells is unforgettable. Author tour. (Aug.) FYI: Askew is the author of the 1993 short story collection Strange Business, reissued in June 1997 by Viking.