After securing the position as an accountant in Wellington, Henry Oades leaves behind the hawkers and the filth, the soot-belching chimney pots of London, packing his wife, Margaret,
and his children, John and Josephine, off to New Zealand. Under a pewter sky they sail on the enormous, majestic
At first, Margaret is reluctant to travel, but upon arriving in Wellington, she
is entranced by this idyllic storybook place, swept up by this new land. Introduced to Cyril Bell, the sail-maker, and Mim Bell, his wife, the first few months are a challenge: there’s the arrival of twins and then the reports that a Maori lad was publicly flogged.
The warning signs are there - apparently the lad was royal, and the governor is saying there is bound to be trouble. Suddenly Moran is propelling her characters from one violent scenario to another, pitting innocent Margaret and her children against the anger and
vengeance of the Maori race.
Violently kidnapped, Margaret and her children are taken by a "hideously tattooed four."
Their mouths yawning wide and tongues wagging obscenely, they do unspeakable things to Mim while fear, "a salty blinding, vicious thing,” clogs Margaret’s throat and ears.
Henry desperately tries to find his wife. The trail, however, is cold, and there
are just a handful of family men against a "sodding band of savages." Realizing it's time to leave these lawless islands
that are home to the Maori, Henry travels to Berkeley. There he finds love in the arms of Nancy, even though his heart is still with Margaret.
Becoming a dairy farmer in the service of Ned Barnhill, Henry's new life presents new challenges. Nancy likes Henry fine and gentle as he is, and she trusts him. While finding contentment and eventually taking her new husband’s advice, neither party anticipates the return of the intrepid Margaret.
Her surprise appearance that comes to the attention of The Daughters of Decency, the group incensed
that there are two women calling the same man "husband."
The journey to New Zealand and later to Berkeley gives this tale much of its Victorian piquancy, but Henry, Margaret and Nancy’s battles against the strictures of the day and the rigid realities of nineteenth-century social life truly drive the themes of the novel. In this world where bigamy is “a grievous sin against god,” Margaret’s ultimate goal is to reconnect with her husband, while Nancy fights to keep her new marriage and her life with Henry in place. The later part of the story is buoyed along by both women’s sense of love for Henry, but their womanly bond - a true nineteenth-century sisterhood - gives the novel heft and meaning.