In this sequel to The House of Closed Doors, Nell Lillington leaves the Poor Farm with her infant daughter Sarah and friend Tess and journeys to Kansas where they hope to make a new life for themselves. Nell is hired as a seamstress for Eternal Light Seminary, the one stone building in a land of sod shanties. But the solidity of the seminary turns out to be little more than a facade. Nell soon discovers that there are competing factions in the seminary, with many men (and women) valuing money and prestige over the pursuit of truth.
As Nell’s skills in sewing continue to improve, she takes on a side job of dressmaking for the wealthy women in the vicinity. This augments the money that she can send to her faithful friend Martin Ruthersford, who has been busy investing her capital at the same time as he has been building his upscale department store in Chicago.
A pretty young woman in 1870s Kansas can’t help but attract admirers, and Nell soon finds herself being courted by Reinar Lehmann, a wealthy and impetuous young student, and by Judah Poulton, a handsome but coldly calculating teacher. The idea of providing Sarah with a father (and removing the stain of illegitimacy from her) is attractive, but will either of these men be the father Sarah needs or a man that Nell can love? When two mysterious murders turn the seminary into a place of mistrust and danger, Nell must decide whether Kansas is the place she wants to set down roots, or if, in fact, her heart lies farther away in the resurrected city of Chicago.
The title of this book ties well into the theme of the story. Instead of being full of the eternal light of God’s presence, the seminary founders are eternally full of deception about their aims. No one practices what they preach, with the head of the teetotalling seminary plying donors with alcohol and committing adultery in secret. One of Nell’s own suitors is dissembling about his nefarious past and will stop at nothing to achieve the power he craves.
The greatest lie, however, is the self-deception that both Nell and Martin have been practicing for so long. Nell has deceived herself into thinking that her vaunted independence is preferable to a loving marriage with Martin, while Martin has refused to admit to himself that Nell Lillington is the only girl he has ever cared for. As the deception clears away from the main characters’ hearts and the action-packed finale brings the novel to a breathless close, we are forced to face the question: is it too late for happiness or will the consequences of their self-deception be eternal?
“And it did no good to tell him that if he were on bended knee before me, my aversion to marriage might just collapse like a castle in the clouds. That the notion of spending the rest of my days–and nights–with one man, running his household and having his children, didn’t seem nearly so bad if it were Martin’s face I would see smiling at me when I awoke. If only I’d realized that sooner.”