Two weeks after her parents die of swamp fever, seventeen-year-old Susanna Quiner can think of nothing else but her superstitions and going back to Philadelphia. Trying to run their store in the new town of Severne, Ohio, with her four sisters without their parents to guide them, seems futile when winter will be upon them soon and there is no man to hunt for their food.
While outside doing chores, Susanna sees several Potawatomi emerge from the Thieving Forest which isn't unusual since they trade with many of the tribes as much as they do the pioneers passing through, but the men are not going to the front of the store but toward their cabin. Her sister Aurelia is outside feeding her chickens and Susanna tries to attract her attention to no avail. Hiding behind a tree, Susanna is horrified to see her three older sisters pulled outside of the cabin by the men, then Aurelia taken as well, tied up along with some of their possessions, and then forced through the woods. Should she follow or risk the time it will take to find help?
Beatrice, Penelope, Aurelia and Naomi are pushed forward at a furious pace through the forest. They're being taken north, hopeful that they'll be ransomed in Risdale and not sold off to the highest bidder, or worse, forced to be wives or killed for not being capable slaves. Meanwhile, Susanna runs off to the nearest cabin in town for help. She can hardly think and she can't seem to get her point across to her neighbor, Amos Spendlove, that he must bring in the men from the fields to form a search party for her sisters. She fears mostly for her sister Aurelia who is still suffering from a fever. She's told by another neighbor that if Aurelia's ill, the Potawatomi will kill her, rather than take her illness back to their people, as is their way. Susanna rushes off to find Old Adam, a Miami Indian who is married to a Shawnee, a friend who she's sure knows his way in the forest and will help her track her sisters.
Cade and Seth Spendlove are on their way back from selling the Quiner sisters' wagon for them, per their father, Amos' request, when they learn of the sisters' capture from one of their neighbors who is searching for them. Seth had bought a ring that he plans to give to Susanna, hopeful that she will be his wife. Cade plans to marry Aurelia. The Spendloves are half-brothers and have inherited their father's part-Potawatomi blood, although they haven't told anyone since they also each had a Bavarian mother and it's hard to discern their background by their looks.
Cade and Seth both suspect their father of some sort of foul play, doubting that the Quiner sisters ever wanted their wagon sold. They decide to search for them as well, hoping to come across Susanna on the way, without returning to their father with the money for the wagon he had them sell. They feel that money should go to Susanna for her family but Seth isn't quite sure how he'll tell her his suspicions about his father, or that he's part Potawatomi, when he proposes. Will she even consider him as her husband after what has happened?
I'm not sure of the accuracy of the historical details in this novel because I'm more familiar with Native American history in Ohio in the 1700s, more so than the early 1800s, but the storytelling is realistic and believable so it is easy to envision it as plausible as it happens in this fictional tale. If you're curious, there's a good PBS special online regarding the Black Swamp history that will give you a feel for the difficulties that the pioneers faced, such as the mosquitoes, hence the fevers, as well as the flies, muck and rain, making it difficult to farm or even walk through the rich earth. If you love hiking the marshes that are now being reestablished in Ohio's parks as much as I do, then you'll relate to what it may have been like in 1808 in the Black Swamp near Toledo as you're reading this adventure.
I'm particularly fond of colonial stories, especially when they depict the pioneers of different nationalities working alongside the natives. Sure, there are villains, plus gruesome and sad circumstances, but it's the learning to live together that fascinates me the most. There are the language and custom barriers to be crossed and understood, and all of this is very well done in this story.
Susanna is the spoiled youngest sister, not expected to work as hard or to be as brave as the rest of her sisters. She doesn't know how to do much of anything since she has always had others around to help her. When faced with working at a mission to earn her keep, she befriends a native girl who becomes her companion on part of her journey. It's a good thing she made that friend because I'm not sure she would have made it on her own. The land is pretty hostile at this time in history and I doubt that many women had the knowledge or the strength to survive these harsh conditions alone. The loneliness itself would have been difficult enough, but there are bears and wolves to fear, along with the sheer volume of the gathering and hunting needed to survive while on the run. If you want to appreciate what you have now in comparison, the reality in this novel will surely do that for you.
All five sisters have a story to tell and this book follows them as Susanna searches to bring them all back together. Quite an adventure, there's never a dull moment as Susanna grows up and becomes a woman of substance. Don't think that this is a "woman is captured by Indians and forced to be their wife" kind of story because it's not. It's much richer than that and explores the many possible antidotes of what could happen to five women if separated by circumstances in a frontier just being established.
After reading this book I'm very hopeful that author Martha Conway continues to write historical stories set in Ohio. There are so few of them and the history is so fascinating that it's pure pleasure to find an author who seems to appreciate it as much as I do and writes such an engaging story that brings it all together. Martha Conway's style depicts a love of the land and the people who strove to survive it. I recommend this book to historical lovers who crave the stories of our brave pioneers who settled in Ohio when roads were paths well worn by hunters and the hunted.