Midwestern author Ellen Baker's debut novel spans three generations of the Mickelson family, who live in an imposing house on a hill in bucolic Park Rapids, Wisconsin. The legend is that an Indian chief placed a curse on that hill, the final resting place of his young daughter. Anyone who disturbed it would be unlucky in love.
Dolly Magnuson, a newlywed just moved to town in 1950, learns of the Mickelsons during gossipy quilting sessions with the church ladies. Somewhat disenchanted with married life, she falls in love with the neglected house, and wants to find out what happened to make the family leave town. She sneaks into the house and tries to clean it up, but her plan goes awry when the last Mickelson son, World War II veteran JJ, arrives home unexpectedly. As she works around him, he opens up to her and gradually provides the missing pieces of the puzzle.
This story does what all good stories should do: It takes you places some homey and warm, and others where you'd rather not go. The central characters are the Mickelson women, sympathetic, troubled and beautiful. The men are aloof, roiling with unclaimed emotion and needs. The plot shifts between Dolly's own troubled marriage and her housekeeping efforts, and the sad tale of the Mickelson family, spanning two world wars. Baker has a degree in American Studies, and her debut is as much a look at wifery and creating a home life as it is a family saga. Using chapter headings from ladies' journals of the period to help set the mood, Baker does a skillful job of painting a picture of early 20th-century society, blending it with an intricate look at a single family's experience to create a compelling drama that is full of love, conflict, loss and life.