As the family gathers around the bedside of famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher in 1887 Brooklyn Heights, his closest sister and most avid supporter, Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom's Cabin) rushes to his bedside, Henry having slipped into a coma. With his cold-eyed wife, Eunice, hovering near, antagonizing nurses and friends alike, Harriet finds her brother's home as tension-filled as ever. In a nearby rooming house, the youngest sibling, Isabella Beecher Hooker, awaits an opportunity to approach the family with a request to see her brother one more time. Ostracized for the last twelve years, since Henry is accused of infidelity with a married woman, Isabella has little hope of a reprieve, even as Henry lies dying.
Time passing slowly on the death vigil, sisters Harriet and Isabella ruminate on the causes of their estrangement and the loss of sisterly intimacy they once shared. O'Brien dramatically presents Isabella's perspective, the impulsive, passionate younger sister who adores her older brother and her confidant, Harriet. Harriet is the one who has taken the time to mentor her step-sibling, explaining the evils of slavery and the family tradition of standing for truth. When an adult Isabella is attracted to spiritualism and an emerging women's movement, associated with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony and Victoria Woodhull, Harriet is unsympathetic, but agrees to disagree with Isabella on these matters, as long as family loyalty remains intact.
The threat arrives in the form of Victoria Woodhull, a sensational, free love-espousing lightning rod who inflicts moral vulnerability on the formerly righteous women's movement, creating a rift within the ranks that is quickly exploited by enemies of the movement. Woodhull makes public a claim that the upstanding Henry Ward Beecher has had an unseemly relationship with Elizabeth Tipton, wife of parishioner Theodore Tipton. Woodhull denounces Beecher as a hypocrite. As the Beechers draw together in defense of their older brother, it is Isabella who is the weak link, doubting Henry's veracity and agonizing over the imprisonment of Woodhull for exercising her right of free speech. Expecting understanding, even guidance from Harriet, Isabella is rebuffed.
In contrast, throughout a trail that follows later, Harriet remains loyal to Henry, but her devotion comes at great personal sacrifice. Turning her back on Isabella, Harriet cannot condone her step-sister's doubts, nor can she afford to be charitable to one incapable of family loyalty. The star of the piece, Henry, insulated by his arrogance, avoids other than patent denials, never experiencing guilt over the suffering of his brothers and sisters. It is hard to judge which sister carries the heavier burden, each as devastated finally as the other, although Harriet is much more intractable in her views than Isabella. The author weaves a tangled web: a man of God, a free-thinking suffragette, the indiscretions of a married woman and her wronged, if equally indiscreet husband. Wealth, notoriety, power and arrogance attend every aspect of this tawdry affair, the real victims sisters Harriet and Isabella. Luan Gaines.