Maryann Nelson's widowed mother, Flo, sees the opportunity to better her family by marrying the local undertaker, Norman Griffin. Though on the surface a caring family man, Maryann and her sister, Sal, soon discover that he has another side to him. For Sal, it is too much to bear and she escapes, leaving Maryann to take revenge on Griffin. The chance of a new life opens up when she befriends Joel Batholomew, who works on the canal. Aboard his narrowboat, she finds herself falling in love with her new life.
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It is 1942, and after a childhood of suffering in Birmingham, Maryann Bartholomew has built a life of happiness and safety with her husband, Joel, and their children, working the canals on his narrowboat, the Esther Jane. But the backbreaking work and constant childbearing take their toll on Maryann, and the tragic loss of her old friend, Nancy, followed by a further pregnancy lead her to a desperate act which nearly costs her her life.