Doubly abandoned after her mother’s death and her Cherokee father’s departure from South Carolina in search of work, young Rachel Barrett must seek out her maternal relatives in faraway Boston. Delivered by her teacher to the household of the socially prominent Hyatts, the girl confronts the family and the life her unstable mother fled long ago. Alienated and uncomfortable, the questing Rachel refuses to be educated at a young ladies’ academy with her cousin, instead seeking her own teacher – bookshop owner Elizabeth Peabody. Through her mentor, she becomes acquainted with the leading thinkers and writer in Boston and Concord – Hawthorne, Holmes, Louisa Alcott, and eventually her great idol, the elusive Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Rachel also encounters Gage Randall, a young man who has Southern connections himself. Conflicted over his political sympathies and his feelings for Rachel, he is bitterly divided from his brother Alex. A desperate and damaging situation forces him into protecting Rachel, but in response he cuts himself off from her emotionally. Her consolation comes from friends among the great and the good, her intellectual pursuits (she delves into transcendentalism), and a nursing stint in Washington where again she encounters Louisa May Alcott and yet another luminary, Walt Whitman.
Coe has clearly done her research, yet fails to infuse her characters with forceful personalities: for most of the book Rachel appears excessively reliant on mentoring and tutoring. She and her friends talk at one another, dropping names and spouting literary hearsay. The writing style is readable, and the tale clips along, covering many years – albeit in an episodic and incidental fashion.