Penelope is a “great horse of a girl” who teaches school in late 19th-century Nova Scotia. She has few prospects as far as men are concerned until she meets quiet miller Ewan MacLaughlin. They court, and he shows her his plans for a new mill, his ideas brilliant, his manner respectful.

But after marriage, she discovers Ewan is a humorless, rigid man who treats her like a servant. When children are late in coming, Ewan is even crueler toward her. Soon he travels all over the country for months, fixing other people’s mills, leaving her to manage their own. Reluctant at first, Penelope learns the millwork and becomes adept and a fixture in the community Ewan shuns. Tragedies follow until one night in a blizzard she finds a moment of happiness. Ever courageous and determined, now it’s her mission to protect her livelihood and her grandchildren.

The author knows the intricate working of mills and the day-to-day life of a woman of this era. While we spend a brief time in Ewan’s point of view, we’re never allowed deep into his heart to fully understand the emotionless man he’s turned out to be. Through Penelope we comprehend the limited choices and power a female had in this century. She suffers from the men who come into and command her life, and I wish she had committed the crime she decides not to. An absorbing read, and a poignant – though tearful – journey through one woman’s hardscrabble existence.

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Jenny Barden's masterful novel about the lost colony of Roanoke.






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