In 1926, having cared for her sick mother on her own for some years, 16 year old Mary gives birth to a baby boy in the Workhouse. Abandoned by her mother, unsupported by the child’s father, and behaving in ways the Workhouse finds difficult to manage, her baby is taken from her and she is sent to the local mental hospital (previously the lunatic asylum). Here, with the help of other inmates, and encouraged by an ambitious young woman seeking her vocation as a nurse, she begins a long process of discovery and development, learning to read and write, and then to cook and cater for the staff and patients in the institution that becomes her home.
Set against a backdrop of changes in attitude to, and treatments for, mental illness, and reflecting developments in post war societal structures, particularly those involving immigration from the Empire, Mary’s story spans over 50 years, as, discharged from the hospital, she continues to strive to find her identity, to understand where she belongs, and ultimately to find her baby. While the influence of the Great War on the lives of those who survived it echoes over the lives of the generations that follow, Mary yearns for a caring and tolerant community to support the family she finally creates for herself.