When an infant is brought to the Orphanage of the Immaculate Heart in Denmark, Sister Birgit takes a special interest, in thrall of the flame-haired child from the start. In her eagerness, baby Famke bites off the glass top of her bottle, tiny shards of glass cutting her tender lips. Sister Birgit delicately removes each sliver, forging a bond with the child that will never be broken.
Famke's precocious nature unsettles the sisters of the convent, who are happy to release her at age fourteen to work as a maid and goose girl. But Famke isn’t meant for such a life, and when she meets an artist, Albert Castle, in the late 1880s, she enthusiastically joins him as his model and lover. The stunning Famke Summerfugl is transformed in the eyes of her English artist, posing for him in their shabby garret by day, the object of his passionate adoration by night.
Albert finishes his larger-than-life painting of the idealized beauty and leaves for England, later moving on to America. But Famke falls on hard times. When her money from Albert runs out, she has no means of support. Finding a new position, Famke is introduced to Heber Goodhouse, a Mormon willing to take on a third wife to help with his enterprises in Utah. With Heber‘s assistance, Famke follows Albert to America.
The long and desperate search takes Famke to Utah, Colorado, the New Mexico Territories, Hygeia Springs, California, and finally to San Francisco. Painting the women of the bordellos as he passes through the West, Albert is always a few steps ahead. As her fruitless pursuit unfolds, Famke draws inordinate attention, suspected of cohesion with the infamous “Dynamite Gang,” pursued by Heber Goodhouse and an enterprising yellow-journalist who writes falsely of her exploits. And there is Viggo, also from the orphanage, now a mortician’s apprentice, enlisted by Sister Birgit to locate Famke.
The seventeen-year-old bravely navigates uncharted territory in pursuit of her lover; she adapts to place and circumstance like a chameleon, realizing the advantage of dressing as a man. As Famke’s drama unfolds, she leaves a trail of obsessed men and prostitutes who remember a frail visitor disguised as Albert Castle’s brother. Some speak of the mysterious woman with the wracking cough of the tubercular, bright red drops that spill from her fevered lips. An element of Famke’s unique attraction, the illness emphasizes her delicate beauty, the contrast of white skin, fevered cheeks and titian tresses.
The age of invention meets the Wild West in this outstanding Victorian drama, as Cokal masterfully weaves the threads of Famke’s love for Albert into a memorable portrait. Her journey covers the continents, from Denmark to the barren deserts of Utah and the once pristine wilderness of the West, under assault by the advances of industry. Famke draws a disparate group in her wake, the characters mired in the past, their Victorian morals dictated by the last century. The ending is a shocking conflagration of misspent emotions, misguided intentions and the final fury of unrequited passion.