Set in County Mayo, Ireland, the action begins with the rescue of twelve-year-old Ruby, who has become orphaned during the worst winter on record in 1947. Losing her family and the six difficult years she then endures at a convent school do not break her strong spirit. Once she is
hired as a nursery maid at Ballyford Castle, Ruby becomes an indispensable member of the staff, her education and ability to read and write setting her apart from the other servants.
Oddly, Ballyford feels familiar to Ruby from the moment she arrives and she intuits that the kindly couple who manage the estate know something they are unwilling to tell. Matters are bleak at the castle because the current lord and lady have lost five infant sons in five years. Lady Isobel dwells in a haze of despondency while Lord Charles has been staying away in Liverpool to avoid his sad memories. Local legend tells of a curse and a ghost that have brought tragedy to the FitzDeane family. When Lord Charles returns for a visit, Ruby’s need to understand the secret of her connection to his ancestral home gains new urgency.
The locales in this novel come alive through believable characterization and authentic dialects. A stark contrast exists between the scenes in Liverpool and those on the west coast of Ireland, with a menacing subplot in the former providing gritty realism while the folk customs and superstitions of tenants inhabiting the estate’s cottages open an age-old link to the supernatural. Fairytale aspects of the story that could seem absurd in a 1950s context are not entirely predictable and suspense is maintained long enough to make them intriguing.