The rural New England of Live Free or Die, the fifth and final novel in Ernest Hebert's masterful series about the fictional town of Darby, N.H., bears no resemblance to the quaint, prosperous locale portrayed in mail order catalogs and sentimental Christmas cards. Even the tidy town common of nearby Center Darby Village is itself an illusion, a product of the cosmetic efforts of commuters who ''believed in the idea of New England, even if the idea wasn't exactly true to the place.''
In the grittier, more complicated world Hebert evokes, Darby is the kind of town young people leave. The wealthy few go off to colleges and careers elsewhere; the rest flee to find work and to escape a class system as rigid as fate. ''Starting over is what it's about in America,'' young Frederick Elman tells Lilith Salmon. ''Going is normal. Staying is strange...You stay in your hometown, you end up more of a stranger than if you'd started new someplace else.''
What's strange about Frederick and Lilith, in the eyes of Darby, is their love affair. Live Free or Die is the story of two homecomings. Frederick, a wandering laborer who lives in his camper, is summoned home to run his father's trash-collecting business while the old man recuperates from a broken leg. Lilith, of the Upper Darby Salmons, is home from college to attend the exhumation and reburial of her father, who was known locally as ''the Squire.'' A year after his death, Reggie Salmon's grave is being moved to make way for a new school. Still mourning, Lilith must also oversee the Trust, a woodland conservancy established by her father.
What Reggie Salmon envisioned as a sanctuary too precious for trespass, Frederick's father sees as a handy spot for a dump. More ambitious souls think the place looks ripe for development into condos. Frederick and Lilith are united by their mutual feeling for the Trust, but they are also pushed apart by Frederick's crippling pride and Lilith's inability to say what she feels.
Offended by the lovers' insult to the social order, the townspeople are only too glad to conspire against them. ''There'll come a day,'' Frederick's father warns him, ''when she'll double-cross you. You'll think you're putting it to her, but all along she'll be putting it to you. It's in her blood.''
So schematic a rendering of the plot, however, cannot begin to suggest the idiosyncratic richness of Hebert's style. Live Free or Die is fleshed out with several subplots and rambling asides, at least one of which, an essay on the natural ecology and human sociology of New England freshwater fishing, is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Self-contained despite a number of tantalizing references to earlier books, Live Free or Die is sure to send many readers all the way back to the first novel in Hebert's series, The Dogs of March. A-