The former glory of America is in ruins: a vast, muddy landscape, no more skyscrapers, no cities, no industry, reduced to a distinctly medieval landscape - “This used to be America. It used to be the safest place on earth.” Travelers plod toward the East Coast on foot, the fortunate few with carts, horses and donkeys, most reduced to a few pitiful possessions, their eyes set on the distant shore. Once there, they hope to purchase passage to Europe, where it is said that freedom from want is not merely a dream.
Disease and hunger plague the survivors of this new America, a return of pestilence and superstition familiar to the Dark Ages. Ferrytown lies not many days from the coast and freedom, where the enterprising citizens have created a constant source of income providing ferrying and hospice for the endless stream of travelers.
So far free of disease, only one young Ferrytown inhabitant has lately been removed to the Pesthouse, a small hut outside the town, there to recover or die. Thirty-year-old Margaret, body shorn of the luxurious red curls that carry infestation, willingly embraces the deep slumber of the ill.
Meanwhile, brothers Franklin and Jackson Lopez, tall, muscular fellows who seem as giants to lesser men, have joined the line of folk soon to arrive at Ferrytown. But Franklin, unable to walk further because of a knee injury, remains behind while the older Jackson proceeds ahead to the town, where he finds a place to sleep the night and a warm meal. In a dreadful onslaught of icy sheets of rain, Franklin eventually takes shelter in the hut with Margaret, although she is too fevered to appreciate the young man’s presence.
Nature has other plans for Ferrytown; overnight the landscape is rearranged, a great, looming upheaval of natural confluences. Margaret and Franklin find themselves abruptly isolated, forging an unexpected alliance. Together they will journey across the desolate expanse of ruined earth, moving inexorably toward the coast, where they, too, hope to find the future on a vessel.
On this extraordinary passage, thanks to Franklin’s patient ministrations and hardy nature, Margaret gradually recovers her strength. The couple achieves a tender camaraderie, a joining of wit and will that is their only comfort as they confront the perils ahead. Meeting and enjoying the company of fellow travelers, none hear the approach of ruthless bandits who steal their goods and capture the able-bodied men as slaves.
Menace follows everywhere, civilization reduced to anarchy, reaching even to the safety of The Ark, where a determined set of believers eschew all things metal, protected only by their best intentions against the force of those with weapons. Nearly lost to one another, Margaret and Franklin embrace an opportunity to create a different future, one not ruled by fear and loss. Crace’s prose, while bleak, is filled with hope, envisioning a new prosperity from the bounty of the earth. In this remarkable, beautiful and encouraging novel, life is stripped to the essentials, relieved of the cynicism of greed.