Margaret, who was raised by her aunt and uncle after her parents died, is leaving home in Chicago at 16 to be a schoolteacher in a Nebraska prairie in 1886.
She arrives in Nebraska and first lives with the the school board president and his wife, the Wilsons. The Wilsons are not very friendly and don’t give her much food, only potatoes and string beans for dinner. Mr. Wilson complains about almost everything she does.
On her first day of school, the classroom of children, who all vary in age and size, rebel a little, but she has it mostly under control. Her biggest nuisance is Henry Clark, who is the same age as her. She had first met Henry at the train station with his brothers when she arrived, and led by their brother Robert, they had helped bring her extra trunks to the Wilsons’ house. She has thought about Robert a lot since that day.
The class progressively grows worse, lying about their names, throwing things at her back, and refusing to do anything she says. Mr. Wilson tells her “spare the rod, spoil the child,” so she tries whipping a couple of misbehaving boys with a tree switch. That only works temporarily, and she hates doing that.
Finally, Margaret decides to visit the Clark farm to talk to Henry’s father about his misbehavior. Robert greets her at the door, and listens in as she tells Farmer Clark that Henry needs to behave and value learning. Farmer Clark doesn’t think anyone needs school, and says Robert, his smartest son, never even went one year. Robert’s mother died when he was 7.
The next day at school, Henry shows up with Robert in tow. The class acts badly again, and at the end of the day, Robert tells Margaret that Henry didn’t learn anything. The next day, Margaret gets ahold of the class a little better with a nature walk and using songs to teach, but Robert still says Henry didn’t learn anything. Then Robert tells her he wants to learn how to read. A blizzard sweeps through the area during a school day, and Margaret accompanies Robert and Henry as they bring home three of her students in the freezing weather.
Meanwhile, a schoolteacher from the next town over named Gerald comes to call on Margaret. He is perfect-looking, like a porcelain doll. They meet up several times, and since he is from NYC, he visits her in Chicago while they are both on their Christmas break.
When Margaret gets back from break, she moves in with Mary, a widow who has three stepchildren in Margaret’s class. Margaret begins teaching Robert to read, and he learns pretty quickly. She bought a bunch of new supplies and gifts for the class in Chicago with Christmas money, so they are excited about learning and more receptive to her method of teaching.
It turns out Robert was cousins with Mary’s husband’s family, and he visits Mary a lot and brings her food. Margaret wonders if he’s in love with Mary. Gerald starts to visit too, first for Margaret, but Margaret notices his attention and interest in Mary. Pretty soon both Robert and Gerald are visiting at the same time, and Margaret feels they are both courting Mary. Margaret is a type of feminist in her day, arguing that women teachers should earn as much as men teachers (Gerald makes $36 a week, while she makes $12 a week), that bloomers are okay for women to wear, and that women should be allowed to vote.
A wave of either diphtheria or influenza comes through the area, and people quarantine themselves. Many people die from the illness, and when Margaret hears that no one has seen the Wilsons in a long time, she goes by their house. They are both at death’s door with the illness, so she calls for the doctor and helps nurse them to health. Margaret hears that Farmer Clark died, as well as one of his boys, but she isn’t sure which one. Margaret is gripped with fear that it could be Robert.
One of Mary’s children dies, and at the funeral, Robert shows up. Margaret is so relieved to see him alive. She and Robert walk off by themselves, and she tells him how sorry she is about Henry. They hug each other, and then he kisses her. She gets confused and runs away. She assumes he only kissed her out of grief. School starts back up, and Margaret has lost some other students besides Henry.
Gerald is going to school for the summer at Antioch College in Ohio, and Margaret decides to go too since they accept women. She wants to become a better teacher. Robert tries to talk to her again after a community picnic, calling her Margaret instead of Ms. Evans for the first time. He says she’s always been Margaret in his mind, and tries to pull her close, but she pulls away and says he better go find Mary. Robert asks if she’s going to Antioch because of Gerald, and she angrily replies that she’s going to learn.
Margaret and Mary talk about Gerald and Robert, and it turns out Mary felt both were courting Margaret. Margaret says she couldn’t be more wrong, and asks which one Mary wants to marry. Mary basically implies she would say yes to the first person who asked.
During the summer, Gerald asks Margaret to tell him what Mary says in her letters. Margaret asks him if he has feelings for Mary, and he admits he does. Margaret encourages him to tell Mary and get permission from his father to marry and move back to NYC and work in his father’s bank. Gerald does all this, and pretty soon he and Mary are engaged.
When she returns to the prairie, Margaret asks Mary what Robert said about her engagement. Mary said he was very happy for her. Mary moves to NYC to be with Gerald, so Margaret goes back to living with the Wilsons. Since she saved their lives earlier, they are much nicer this time.
After several days where she never hears from Robert, Margaret decides to go find him herself. She takes a buggy out to his farm and finds out there’s a prairie fire headed straight for it. She finds Robert, and he tells her that’s why he didn’t come to see her – he had to stay and watch the fire. He calls her “Meggie” and kisses her, and Margaret realizes maybe he loved her all along, not Mary. Robert has to go fight the fire with backfire, and he tells her he’s going to ask her to marry him as soon as he gets back.
Margaret waits for the rest of the day as Robert and some other men fight the fire, worried sick about him and praying he survives. The fire lessens, so she believes the backfire must have worked. Finally, Robert rides up on his horse. Margaret tends to some of his burns in the kitchen, and he asks her to marry him. She says she knows the right answer to that question – yes. The End!
Another really enjoyable Sunfire romance, with a strong heroine. Gerald was pretty lame as a rival love interest, and Robert could have had more interaction with Margaret in the first half of the book, but all in all, it was good fun.
Author: Jane Claypool Miner