Philadelphia Gordon is an artist, a riverboat skipper, a beautiful and independent woman. Orphaned by a shipwreck, Philadelphia grows up on the banks of her beloved Murray River, seemingly destined for a conventional life. But tragedy leads her first to a successful career as a painter, then to marriage to the dashing captain of the paddle-steamer that bears her name.
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Whilst living in Echuca, Philadelphia Gordon has developed a strong attachment to the river, and a fascination for paddle steamers. When she becomes owner of a paddle steamer she wishes that she had been born a male and not bound by the conventions society imposes upon females. When Delie meets a young handsome riverman, Brenton Edwards, she falls hopelessly in love with him. However, the future is not the idyll she had foreseen.
Philadelphia (Delie) Gordon, with her husband Brenton cruelly incapacitated by a stroke, continues to defy tradition by becoming first mate and skipper of the paddle steamer Philadelphia. Rising to this new challenge, Delie is happy with her activity-filled days, and with a growing awareness of the beauty of the river and its slowly paced life, she begins to find some contentment. However, Delie, though espousing the equality of the sexes, is all woman and is to be sorely tempted by the men who enter her life.
Philadelphia (Delie) Gordon is in the twilight of her years. Finally, it seems, she has found some peace. With the power of the Murray River finally harnessed and the advent of train and rail, the great paddle steamers of the past are redundant. With time to paint and to ponder the continuity of life, she contemplates the randomness of her existence. However Delie's contentment is shattered when fate, with the advent of WWII, is once more to intervene in her life.