CORA WYLIE struggles to raise her large family during the Great Depression on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Cora’s childrearing is complicated by her hard-drinking, out-of-work husband, JESSE, whose freewheeling job as a lumberjack is cut short in 1934 due to widespread economic turmoil. Their survival as a family is constantly tested by daily hardships, poverty wages, and harsh winters. Despite their hardscrabble existence in a 20’x 20’ shack, Cora keeps investing in her children, imparting her values, morals, faith, and good humor.
After the accidental shooting death of a young son, Cora takes extra time and energy to tend to the psychological needs of the 9 year-old son who pulled the trigger, JOEL. Jesse is of no help. She also strives to nurture each of her children, depending on her older twin girls, SARAH and SUZANNA, for the bulk of housekeeping and cooking duties.
On a trip to her home town, Duluth, the family visits her well-to-do (but sickly) FATHER who offers Jesse a well-paying job in his mercantile and grocery store. Jesse declines, saying he’s a rugged outdoorsman rather than a citified clerk. Cora is sorely disappointed and argues with Jesse to reconsider, citing the family’s deepening poverty and Jesse’s low wages as a newly-hired iron ore miner. No deal, says Jesse. Meanwhile, her father’s second wife, RUBY, whom he remarried after her mother’s death ten years ago, openly resents Cora’s “butting into” her father’s business affairs.
Back home, Cora relies on her faith and spiritual strength to keep one foot in front of the other. With railroad trains passing by, occasionally she is visited by a grungy hobo, IDAHO SLIM. He makes it a practice to sing loudly off-key as a way to beg for food (historically accurate), invariably when the children are at school and Jesse is away. The minute she gives him something to eat, he stops the abrasive singing and she stops covering her ears. The truth behind their random encounters is that he is a trained opera singer and poet whose rhapsodies touch her soul, lifting her out of her drudgery and revitalizing the life force in her. During one visit, he composes a rhapsody for her and sings it full voice on bended knee.
Months later, Cora learns of an unexpected inheritance from her just-deceased father. Immediately she realizes how the money could improve her family’s welfare and security. She also learns that Ruby has illegally denied her all but a pittance of it. With the aid of an unselfish lawyer who guides her through many weeks of legal battles, CLEMENT MCGRAW, Cora seeks justice. Jesse gets jealous of McGraw’s interactions with Cora and, unable to match his rival’s decency and cultured breeding, drinks all the more heavily. By this time Joel has found a path out of his devastating remorse and Suzanna strikes out for the bright lights of New York City to begin a cosmopolitan life.
A courtroom showdown tests everyone’s character and mettle, bringing several story threads to a climax. During a drunken binge, Jesse dies from a blunder of his own making. Cora grieves not only his death and the children’s loss of their father, but the potential she saw in him early in their marriage that has deteriorated into his misspent life. While the courtroom proceedings lean in Cora’s favor, she discovers the kind of genuine intimacy with a life partner in Clement that she has yearned for. Her sense of true self—long buried in constant care-taking duties—springs up like a new shoot in fertile soil.
In her arms is Clement McGraw. In her heart is Idaho Slim’s rhapsody. In her prayers is jubilant praise for God.
As the Depression nears an end and 1940’s wartime begins, the deepest strivings of a mother bear fruit in her own life and the lives of her loved ones.
Cora Wylie – mother, wife, lover, and practical problem-solver with firm godly ideals
Jesse Wylie – former lumberjack unable to stay employed as an iron miner; heavy drinker
Ruby Colton – second wife of Cora’s father, runs his successful grocery store after his death, fancies herself First Lady of Duluth
Clement McGraw – lawyer fighting his largest, high-profile case and confidant to Cora
Idaho Slim – railroad hobo whose random visits inspire Cora; a singer/poet
Joel Wylie – middle son who accidentally kills his brother; Cora’s dearest challenge
Suzanna Wylie – teen daughter who helps raise kids and leaves home for fashion career.