Anna Berter, the narrator, comes of age in a well-to-do family in Iowa at the turn of the century, brought up by an ineffectual doctor father, and brought down by a beautiful, but rigid mother, called the 'Prussian' by her own daughter. Etta Berter swats fancies like flies and cannot abide the Celtic folk-tales with which their housekeeper, the Old One, feeds Anna's starving imagination. When Hailus Tucker visits the Berters' claustrophobic household, he impregnates the Old One's granddaughter, then wanders out of their lives leaving tragedy in his jaunty wake; though beyond reproach in Etta's unbending mind, 'sent home with a lunch box and a kiss'.
However, injustice plays only a bit part in this story of nature and nurture, the quality of love, its charms and curses; the tone is too melting to address any hard-edged problem- solving. Anna's guilt over her innocent collusion with Hailus is couched only in the vaguest terms. When Anna finally confronts either parent with an unpleasant truth, each behaves with a curious sang- froid, as if there were no revelations, no terrible secrets, nothing that cannot be dealt with by polite evasion and elision; all for the best, as Etta repeats annoyingly.
Esstman works her effects through description rather than action, as in a gentle jibe at the local ladies, their laundry billowing 'with air, each leg filling out like sausage casing'. Her accurate aim at the fascinatingly dreadful Etta is satisfying: 'The Prussian went through all the rooms and adjusted the figurines on tables and straightened pictures as though the household had tilted out of balance in her absence'.
Some beautifully contrived dialogue gives more of an edge to the proceedings. Thomas Rafferty, the so-called bad guy - whose crime, it emerges, is to be a bastard and not of good family - challenges Anna as she gingerly moves towards the truth, and then finds herself unable to act on its dilemmas. Early on, an exchange of childhood-cruelty stories between the the Prussian and Hailus Tucker neatly twists the reader's ambivalence towards them into dislike.
Water is a recurrent theme, a place of wishing and fear, the one place where the Prussian will never go. Over sewing or laundry, the Old One and Edwina debate and elaborate the stories of their family name, the Selchies - fantastic half-human seals. Fact is firmly tied to fiction, as the thoroughly pragmatic women work their magic into the real world. The Old One's imagination proves an antidote to the Prussian's warped version of morality and love: 'It was intended that everyone should heed these bonds and the whole world be woven over so tight with a net of them that not a single soul should slip past into nothingness.'