Ashleigh Bell Pedersen's debut novel, "The Crocodile Bride," takes place over the summer that Sunshine Turner turns 12. She and Billy, her father, live in Fingertip, La., in the Atchafalaya Swamp. A New Deal community built during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration, many of its houses stand empty now in 1982.

Aunt Lou and her 13-year-old daughter, JL, live across from their relatives. In the evenings, the four talk on the porch or stroll to the general store and bar.

Nothing happens in Fingertip. Yet as the novel progresses, everything depends on this humid backwater rich with stories and secrets. What troubles Billy Turner? What will happen when Aunt Lou remarries and moves with JL to Lafayette? What are we to make of Sunshine's Tennessee grandma, Lou and Billy's maman, or of Moss Landry and others who directly or indirectly shape Sunshine's life?

Pedersen's novel dramatizes how stories from the past sometimes come true — the Crocodile Bride story, for example, about the lonely woman living deep in the Atchafalaya.

The path to the bride's house begins at the spring-fed lake where Lou, JL and Sunshine swim. Alligators lurk in the brackish water beyond the yellow caution rope Moss Landry has put up. When they are children, Grandma Catherine tells Lou and Billy that "Nobody knows how a crocodile came to ... this part of the world. There are no other crocodiles here ... Alligators, yes, but crocodiles are even more frightening — and this crocodile was larger and more ferocious than ... the biggest alligator."

The creature guarding the red house in the haunted woods around Black Bayou arrived before "the country met any white faces at its shores," before the cypress trees were felled to make "imposing sideboards ... large armoires and ornately trimmed dressers ... the wood finely polished." With the land despoiled, the balance of nature was upset. More recently, perhaps Billy and Lou's secrets or Billy and Sunshine's secrets have made the creature restive.

In addition to the novel's literal and figurative meanings, Pedersen adds these historical, ecological and mythological elements. I thought of William Faulkner's southern landscapes, his mythmaking, and of Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett's wonderful nature story "A White Heron" with its brave, if naïve, heroine.

Finally, in a novel so rich, so evocative of a place and its people, readers might need to pause occasionally to sort out who is who. I suspect some readers will be put off by the references to bodily functions.

This said, "The Crocodile Bride" marks an impressive first novel filled with hope, understanding and, ultimately, a tempered forgiveness for the secret things that have happened here.

Anthony Bukoski lives in Superior, Wis. He is the author of the story collection "The Blondes of Wisconsin," winner of this year's Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award.

The Crocodile Bride

By: Ashleigh Bell Pedersen.

Publisher: Hub City Press, 308 pages, $26.