In 1874, in the wake of the war, trauma haunts civilians and veterans, renegades and wanderers, freedmen and runaways. Twelve-year-old ConaLee and her mother, Eliza, who hasn’t spoken in more than a year, arrive at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia, delivered to the hospital’s entrance by a war veteran who has forced himself into their lives. There, far from family, a beloved neighbour, and the mountain home they knew, they try to reclaim their lives.
The twin horrors of war and race rise to the surface as we learn their history: their flight to the highest mountain ridges of western Virginia; the disappearance of ConaLee’s father, who left for the war and never returned. Meanwhile in the asylum, they begin to find a new path. ConaLee pretends to be her mother’s maid; Eliza responds slowly to treatment. They get swept up in the life of the facility – the mystery behind the man they call the Night Watch; the child called Weed; the fearsome woman who runs the kitchen; the remarkable doctor at the head of the institution.