The setting is the beginning of an Amish settlement in colonial America in the forests of eastern Pennsylvania. There, a young Amish couple, Hans and Kate Zug, are in their ninth year of marriage, still waiting to have a child. Then, one April morning, Kate finds a Native infant, wrapped in deerskin and placed next to the spring where she went to fill her water bucket.
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Born a Native American but brought up Amish, Hester Zug, at age 20, flees her Amish home. Her father's too-tender care of her has made her stepmother wildly jealous, and so Hester sets off, knowing only that she can't stay. Hester's natural instincts for navigating the forests in colonial Pennsylvania, along with the book of medicines and remedies given to her by an aged Native American woman, allow her to survive until she gets sick from drinking river water.