Emily was born into what would be called today the Middle Class; a dairy heiress on a Vermont Farm. Her early diversions were getting into trouble with her beloved chums Evan Howell and her younger brother Michael. As she grew, she was primped by a stern mother for life in society and found herself in the company of only her maids, a bawdy farm hand’s daughter and a quiet runaway slave. Emily’s father provided her education, encouraging her to read books and pursue interests normally only open to men. Her hero is Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, one of the first women to study and professionally practice medicine. Emily has a gift for healing and wants to apply it as a full fledged doctor someday. For fun, she likes to read Shakespeare and other classics. Though she isn’t blessed with a pet, there is a calf on the farm that has her undying affections, the first progeny of May-Belle, a heifer she saved by way of her skills. Prone to mooning, she is the seat of all vexation for her mother, who Emily is constantly judging herself by. Emily has no intention of falling in love, and doesn’t even think about the prospect of marriage, except in the sense that someone might steal her away from her boredom on the farm.
Emily is best known for her lustrous blue eyes and quick answers (if not the smoldering temper that fuels her rapid tongue). She takes after her father for being kind, but harbors the wary doubts of her mother which make her more aloof. Emily prefers her books to spending time with other girls her age.
The tall, dark and handsome, charming phillander that anyone could fall in love with. He’s trouble with a capital T, for women, and a hell of friend. As big a womanizer as he is, he is also fiercely loyal to those he calls friend. Evan hails from a poor family whose farm neighbors the Conrad plot. The eldest in a large family, it is up to him to change the Howells’ circumstances, not just his own. He tends to smoke and drink, and speak with a lazy drawl.
Together with Joseph Maynard, he is one of half of an epic partnership. The two men met at West Point and became fast friends. Hints of their exploits are threaded throughout the story. The likelihood that these escapades are not for the faint of heart is reflected in the behavior he gets up to from the beginning of the book on.
Joseph stands in contrast to his dark companion, tawny haired and light eyed. He is a bit taller than Evan Howell, and of stronger build. He comes from a very wealthy family located in Maryland. Everything has been provided for him, but his behavior does not exude privilege to the point that he makes himself an annoyance. His appearance, grooming and clothing, are probably the only clues to his upbringing. The legend that he became at the point had much to do with his inherent likability. Joseph is charming, knowing exactly what to say, and acts justly toward all. He’s equally skilled at the tasks of an officer in the Cavalry and doesn’t shy from the work.
In his youth, Joseph had taken duty and honor a tad too seriously, especially when it came to his sister’s honor. For this, he is able to relate to the awkward Michael Conrad. Perhaps surprisingly, Joseph likes to read, so discovering that the beautiful Emily Conrad enjoys Shakespeare and the like only interests him in her further. He’s more used to the pretty trussed up wall flowers of society balls–none of which have been able to hold an intelligent conversation beyond the weather and fashion.
Michael is as fresh faced as they come. He’s a boyish looking man, with blue eyes and blond hair. His innocence isn’t just skin deep. Though he’s been accepted to West Point, he regards the world in simple terms. Right and wrong aren’t gray areas to him. He acts always with honor and tends to be a little clumsy. He’s well liked by his classmates, but is nowhere near the stature of Joseph Maynard, a senior officer who went through The Point like a celebrity. The other young men herald Maynard as a legend. Michael is more worried about doing the right thing, regardless of safety. He’s the opposite mixture of his parents that his sister Emily has.
Stuart is a kindly gentleman and owner of vast acreage in Vermont, on which he runs a dairy business. As indulgent as he is with his daughter, he is generous to the other young people in the town, taking it on his bill to make sure that Evan Howell gets into West Point and earns a stellar future for himself. That the boy might marry his daughter one day is only a side concern. Additionally, Stuart takes in Hettie, a runaway slave, risking breaking the law to see her made well again and protected. During Hettie’s tenure with the Conrads, she is expected to work for wages and also catch up on school work she was denied in the place from which she came. Stuart is a progressive man, social politics wise, and is the hero of his young daughter. His white hair and mutton chops, bright cheeks and smile have him standing out in the crowd even more than his finely crafted suits.
From the cream of NYC aristocracy, the farm in Vermont was not where Mrs. Conrad pictured her life taking her. However, she enjoys her life at the side of the man she loves, making her home, being the queen of society in her new location and raising her two children. Seemingly cold, her look can be rather severe. Margaret adheres to rule and decorum to ensure safety. You can imagine that she rather likes the stiff collars and undergarments of the 1860s. Do not be fooled, however, she is a good soul underneath. She welcomes a runaway slave into her home with open arms, and not a thought to the contrary. Margaret is a woman of conviction and faith.
Hettie, as she is called by the Conrad family, is a runaway slave. Despite her visible and invisible scars, she has a hauntingly beautiful appearance, large black eyes and smooth-as-an-infant hickory skin. She likes to keep her hair covered with a wrap when before others and working. Her tale is one of woe, written in ribbed scars on her back.
Once she recovers from her trauma, she becomes the unfaltering friend of Emily, the girl who made her better. It soon becomes apparent that Emily needs her guidance in return. The two bond, feeling equally lost in a world that disregards their worth and humanity. Hettie can tend to be skittish, but she’s brave and driven. She dreams of seeing her son again one day, as well as her husband. In the meantime, she believes, Stuart tries to distract her with studies and work. She enjoys humoring him, as he takes such delight in her progress–she does too. Hettie lives in disbelief at the farm, never having believed she would be able to read let alone earn a wage, or be treated with such remarkable civility.
The Widow Murphy
Mrs. Murphy is a tale of her own. She originates from Ireland, an immigrant who succeeded in the boiling pot of America that normally chewed up those seeking gold on her shores. Murphy is a tough woman, who raised boys, all of whom appear to absent for one reason or another. Her deceased husband was a dear friend of Stuart Conrad, and the relationship between her and Stuart is rumored to be deeper than friendship. That doesn’t bother Mrs. Murphy. She’s been the root of many scandalous rumors and finds that they help amuse her and pass the time.
Murphy is a robust woman who enjoys all the trappings of womanhood but doesn’t get lost in a deep conversation. To Emily, she is an example of what could be, the best of all choices. Murphy is also a loyal friend. However, she is willing to sacrifice her comrades should they stand in the way of what is just. She’s a discerning woman, intuitive and charitable.