Patricia MacLachlan’s novel provides insights into human relations with each other and with the natural environment. The Witting family consists of two parents and two children, Anna and Caleb. However, the children’s biological mother passed away and their father, Jacob, remarried: Sarah is their stepmother. After Sarah moves from Maine to the Midwest to live on the Witting’s farm, she knows little about their way of life. In the novel, she gradually becomes accustomed to farm life and all the family members grow close. The development of love through shared experience and consideration is one theme that the author stresses. Jacob (Papa) tends to be harsh and rarely praises others so getting used to having a full-time partner and treating her respectfully is a challenge for him.
Much of the plot concerns the problems that this family and the neighboring farmers are having because of a drought. The author presents the various steps they must take to conserve water, which they usually get from wells on their property, and to obtain it when the well water is not adequate. They also cope with numerous fires that destroy crop land and buildings. The Wittings have to learn to work together in increasingly difficult circumstances.
The author also shows how Anna and Caleb come to feel a part of Sarah’s side of the family when they live in Maine with her and her aunts. In addition, we learn that the family will be growing; at the end she tells the others that she is pregnant. These changes emphasize the different ways that families form.