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The year is 1798, the place, Harrison, an isolated settlement in Maine County. Ignorance, fear and prejudice about the neighboring Maliseet Indians and the lately departed french, and the dark shadow of devastating epidemics give a carpe diem edge to life.
The story follows the evolution of Adeline Winthrop. She is clever, headstrong, and innocently seductive - combined attributes that have always spelled danger for a girl. Her family - like many of the time - endures under threat of bereavement, murder, rape and desperate poverty. Adeline is a freethinker - when her little brother dies of diphtheria, she loses faith in conventional religion, daring this cruel infanticidal deity to strike her down.
Meanwhile, against the background of more dramatic events, she blunders through the adolescent turbulence of head, heart and hormones with nothing but the ambiguous advice of her mother as guide. Naive, vulnerable and frequently hurt, Adeline is at the mercy of a new and unpredictable inner warfare. In turn she is shaken by the overwhelming force of a physical passion for a man she despises, and is equally dismayed to feel no quickening of the heart for an entirely eligible and attractive scholar offering her more than she has ever dreamed of. Thanks to her mother, an educated woman whom she loves deeply, Adeline has always treasured books as a dependable source of comfort and wisdom, but she knows in her bones that a common passion for books is not enough to make a marriage work.
Her enduring first love, for a Maliseet brave who saves her from drowning, tears her apart. Not only would an alliance with him be social suicide, but she is also forced to accept that she could not survive happily in his world nor he in hers. His eventual murder confirms her disillusionment with the narrow values of her community. Adeline challenges its racism, inhumanity, and hypocrisy.
Her outspoken opinions jeopardize her life.
She has to leave home to work among strangers as a governess. She is strongly attracted to her employer, whose jealous wife throws her out. Lacking the means to go home, Adeline is jettisoned into working for a primitive backwoods family habituated to violence and depravity. Her courage hangs on fragile memories of safety, family and friends, while her precious books allow her to escape briefly to imagined civilization. She finds hope and strength in a powerful ambition: she begins to plan her liberation from penniless impotence through meaningful work.
Returning home, coping with change, gradually recognizing who she is and where her strengths lie, she launches an innovative career in partnership with a childhood friend. Between them they achieve financial independence. Finally, free to direct her own life, with the power to choose as she will, Adeline is able to find happiness.

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