After serving a prison sentence for bigamy and cashiered from the army, Will Crosby quits England for life as a sergeant in the Queensland constabulary, hoping to regain lost self-esteem and the forgiveness of his wronged ‘wife’, Alice. A typhus epidemic on board ship puts his plans in jeopardy as the vessel and its occupants must spend an indefinite time at the ill-prepared quarantine station on Stradbroke Island.
The new, unpredictable relationships Will establishes, especially with Thomas, a lapsed Irish Catholic priest, and Billy, a newly orphaned six-year old, together with his experiences and responsibilities on Stradbroke, project his life in hitherto unimagined directions.
The total absence of any Authority on the island forces Will (the future policeman) and Thomas (the ex-priest) into trying to maintain civilised order in desperate circumstances. However, they encounter much hostility, for almost all the emigrants are fleeing authoritarian harshness in England and Ireland, for one reason or another. Crime and violence are rife, and, despite their own anti-authoritarian sympathies, the two friends have no option but to apply whatever justice they can to protect the community. Will’s view of the world is eventually radically changed through his encounter with Tompani, an Aborigine elder, and his people.