Chicagoand1889. Forced to witness his mother's agonizing death while quarantined in a one room tenement during a cholera epidemic, Gunnar Nilsson's world is turned upside-down. The experience begins his odyssey from a hardscrabble life in Chicago's notorious Swede Town slum to one of near isolation on a rundown farm in the bucolic hills of Black Earth, Wisconsin where he is indentured to a reclusive, emotionally scarred, civil war veteran, Tobias Wren, and his nearly blind wife, Emily. As their lives interweave, Gunn learns the secret that shrouds Emily in sadness and the same secret that goads Tobias to rage against God. In an emotional confrontation, they come together, return to the community and begin to thrive as a family when Gunn falls in love with Hattie Brown, the beautiful daughter of an abusive, mean-spirited horse breeder who threatens to kill him to keep his own secret.