In this lyrical historical fiction with alternating points of view, a repressed woman begins an ancestral quest through the prairies of Iowa, awakening family secrets and herself, while in the late 1800s, a repressed ancestor, Tante Kate, creates those secrets.
As Van Reinhardt clears out her dead father's belongings, she comes across hints of an unsettling family history, along with a request penned by her father prior to his death that sends her on a genealogical quest. Examining a 1900 family portrait of her German immigrant ancestors, Van's curiosity grows about one of the children portrayed there.
In the 1870s, Kate is a German immigrant newly arrived in America with only her brother as family. Life changes for Kate when she and her brother split. When she returns, armed with a secret, nothing is the same, for her or her brother. Together they try to forge a life working for farmers in southwestern Iowa and at Kate's urging, her brother takes the farmer's daughter as his wife. And as that family grows, Kate becomes Tante Kate, isolated and separate from the rest of the family-almost a servant-not even appearing in the family portrait.
Van revisits the town and the farm of her ancestors to discover calamitous events in probate records, farm auction lists, asylum records and lurid obituaries, hinting at a history far more complex and tumultuous than she had expected. But the mystery remains, until she chances upon a small book, sized for a pocket-Tante Kate's secret diary-that provides the missing piece.