On March 10, 1879. The city of Albany, New York, is buried in snow after a catastrophic blizzard. When the blizzard finally ends, all is still, a canopy of white sparkling in the sun, uncannily beautiful. People tentatively leave their shelters, only to discover the lost ones whose lives are forfeit to nature's extravagant, deadly dance. Among the dead are Bonnie and David O'Donnell, each trying to reach their little girls. Released from school as soon as the weather breaks, the sisters--Emma, ten, and Claire, seven--join hands, making their way home. Claire falls into the snow, Emma struggling vainly to free her when a man stops to help. His face wrapped against the freezing wind, the strangers gives the children a ride, but not where they expect. He takes them to a large house and leaves them in safekeeping. The girls will not be seen again for six weeks, when nature strikes Albany again, this time with a devastating flood.
When the frozen bodies of Bonnie and David are found, William and Mary Stipp (both physicians and dear friends of the couple) deliver their bodies to the morgue but fail to locate the sisters, either dead or alive. It is an unbearable blow for the doctors and their extended family, Amelia Sutter and her granddaughter, Elizabeth. Though Elizabeth is studying music in Paris, she and her grandmother return home immediately. Horrified that the girls cannot be found, they assume they have perished. But Mary Sutter Stipp cannot accept this decision, searching daily for the little girls, imploring local police to help. Though a funeral service is held, Marry cannot accept this cruel end to a cherished family.
The drama continues in true Victorian fashion: descriptions of a family's grief, clinging to one another for comfort. William and Mary continue working, Mary providing medical care through a clinic she has opened for prostitutes, a shocking endeavor considered inappropriate for a lady. The wealthiest man in Albany, Gerritt Van der Vere, has reached out to the family in friendship, David O'Donnell having been one of his best workers. After stopping by the funeral service to pay his respects with his wife, Viola, and son, Jakob, Gerritt offers to support the clinic, a gesture Mary greatly appreciates. It is Gerritt who studies the sky, worrying about the weather and the potential for trouble. A massive flood unleashes more destruction, more death, Jakob Van der Vere almost losing his life while saving the books from his father's office.
Soon after the flood, Mary answers a tentative knock on the front door to find the two little sisters on the doorstep. She is shocked and elated that the girls are alive, albeit very subdued, clinging to one another. Emma quietly tells Mary her story, the horror that has befallen them since the blizzard. That story eventually draws the attention of the authorities, fodder for newspapers and gossip, a shocking event that captures the city's intense attention, people demanding an arrest. From the blizzard to the flood (both events of monumental consequence, even Biblical), a woeful tale turns hopeful yet still burdened with Victorian sensibilities: turmoil, graft, betrayal and abomination dressed in a façade of gentility. Women are constrained by strict conventions, "protected" by their men, left behind when men are called to set right the wrongs inflicted. Investigation yields a potential culprit, a court trial to put the world back on its axis.
Significant events are parsed, the oversized drama of blizzard and flood to consider, crimes against innocence to avenge. All is cloaked in dense prose, a marrying of fact and outrage, class and wealth purchasing seats at the front of the court. Hiding below layers of fraud and subterfuge, corruption lurks, defying retribution. But the author has built a morality tale, a thick volume promising us, if not restitution, at least revenge. There are moments of bald truth, shocking amorality and the comeuppance of the prideful, an almost Dickensian effort from loss to salvation. Good and evil stand face to face. Honor prevails, but everyone has lost something.