The story starts out "Down by the Docks" of London, England, 1863.
Charles Dickens is walking along observing everything—the shops, the people, smells, etc. He is writing in a blank notebook. He is headed for "his" Emigrant Ship to write an article for his monthly newspaper column. He boards the Amazon and observes the 800 passengers waiting to be run through the registration.
He makes the query as to whether they are "geese" because there are so many of them, and soon learns they are "Mormons" on their way to "Zion."—or the Salt Lake Valley—in Utah.
He meets the Captain and the President of the company of Saints. They show him around the ship. He sees the sailors getting the ship ready for the send off. He goes below deck to see where the passengers will be quartered.
A band is playing, groups are singing, people are saying tearful goodbyes to their friends and families on the shore. Others are sitting anywhere they can find, writing letters or in journals. The sailors are eyeing the pretty young Mormon girls and starting to make inappropriate remarks about them to one another.
Dickens observes the passengers running through the registration. He soon has enough information for his article and bids goodbye. The company gives him three cheers. As the ship is pulling away from the dock, suddenly everyone's attention is on an angry woman on the wharf who is looking for her daughter the Mormons have stolen. She is yelling to the Captain to put her daughter in a long boat and send her back to shore.
He assures her that her daughter is not on board. She doesn't believe him and swears he has not seen the last of her.
After they are out into the English Channel a ways, they drop anchor to wait for wind and tides. To alleviate overcrowding, the President performs the wedding of four betrothed couples. A celebration follows with the crew joining in dancing with the young Mormon girls. The Captain and President have a confrontation, and the sailors are reprimanded for fraternizing with the young Mormon girls.
The next morning a tugboat comes along side and some officials come on board, including Apostle George Q. Cannon, President of the European Mission, with a young girl—the girl the mother was looking for.
Eleanor Wise has joined the Mormon Church against her mother's wishes and wants to emigrate to America to join an Aunt and Uncle who will be waiting for her in Florence, Nebraska,--the jumping off point for the Saints who will be traveling across the plains in covered wagons.
President Cannon meets with the Captain and then calls a ship's meeting and addresses the Saints.
He tells them they will be anchored there for a day or two until they can get a favorable wind. While they are waiting, he will organize the company into Wards, assign leaders for each ward, and establish routines.
As the Wards are being organized, one Ward leader notices he has seven single females, or as the Saints refer to them, "sisters," in his group and assigns them to berth together and take care of each other.
These sisters are Eleanor Wise, age 23, who has run away from her abusive mother. Eleanor has a special talent as a nurse and care-giver.
Lavinia Triplett, a 35 year old, who is 6 feet tall and a spinster in every sense of the word. No one suspects she can sing, but they later find out she has a most angelic voice.
Caroline Cleverly is a 20 year old, who is from a wealthy family. They have turned their backs on her for joining the Church and will cut her off without "so much as a farthing" if she goes with the "wicked" Mormons. She has been pampered all her life, and now has to learn how to work and become an emigrant and pioneer.
Lizzie Cornell is 25, poor, and from the lower class of London. She speaks in a cockney accent. She has been on the streets all her life. She is crossing on the Perpetual Emigration Fund, which is like a loan that has to be paid back when she reaches the Valley. She takes a liking to a sailor named Alfie, and since the Saints aren't supposed to fraternize with the crew, their romance is clandestine.
Susannah Watts is 18 and is crossing with her twin sisters, Phoebe and Fanny, who are 10 years old. Their father has sent his wife and oldest son over first, and now these three girls. He and his last two sons will come over next season after they earn enough money. Susannah teaches the ships' children to read and the Welsh Saints to speak English. A returning missionary, Marcus Fielding, courts her. The twins befriend an old sailor named Huntly and provide much humor on the voyage.
Back to the plot.
Everyone is getting settled into their berths, exploring the ship, getting harassed by the sailors, learning about the cooking galley, getting acquainted with others in their Ward, being fascinated with the ocean, and feeling very uncertain of what lies ahead of them.
Soon a tugboat comes along side bringing the harbor patrol to search for stowaways. They also have Eleanor Wise's mother.
When the sisters spot them coming, they take Eleanor below deck and hide her in a barrel of beans. They take the beans out and put them in the sister's shawls—wrapping them to look like "babies."
They all come back on deck and blend in with the other families, bouncing their "babies," as Eleanor's mother and the constable look around the ship.
Suddenly, yelling and scuffling are heard below, and the announcement that a stowaway has been found. The sisters' hearts sink, but when the authorities come up with a 50-year-old stow-away, they are relieved.
The mother is not satisfied, but is taken off the ship, and the sisters retrieve Eleanor.
Next, President Cannon blesses the ship, bids farewell and leaves on a lighter—to three cheers and spontaneous singing.
The wind comes up, fills the sails, and the ship slowly moves out to sea.
The rocking, lurching, and bobbing of the ship are starting to turn everyone a pale shade of green.
Soon, practically everyone is seasick and has taken to his/her berth. After one night of seasickness, Eleanor is called upon to deliver a baby—since she is the only one with any experience. (She watched her mother deliver a neighbor's baby once.)
Even though she is very sick, she successfully delivers a baby with the help of Elder Tippetts, her ward leader. After this, Eleanor continues to help other seasick Saints, as well as the sisters in her new family. She starts to emerge as the leader of the group.
After four days of sickness, the President orders all the Saints to be brought up on deck to help them get over their seasickness. Things start to get better and a routine emerges.
We see morning and evening prayers, cooking, eating, early morning cleaning between decks, Sunday meetings, organization of choirs, band practices, children playing games, flirting with the sailors, reading classes, washing clothes, making tents and wagon covers for their westward trek, having dances, weddings, and funerals.
A woman with a heart condition dies. They wrap her in a canvas cloth, tie weights to her ankles, and put her on a plank. They lift the plank. She goes into the water but doesn't have enough weight to take her down fast enough, and the horrified Saints watch two sharks devour her remains. Her married daughter faints at the scene.
During all the various scenes, we get to know each of the Seven Sisters a little more. We also see a pattern of abuse from the sailors, and particularly Titus Holt, the Second Mate. He is very bad and leads the other crewmen in their persecution.
They cut the wash lines, throw water onto the deck while the Saints dance, interrupt meetings with "Yee Hoe's," scare the children, tell horror stories, make fun of the tent ceremony, leer at the young girls, etc.
The Saints try to make the best of the situation, and President Brammal assigns everyone to be on a committee to keep young and old "busy as bees and merry as crickets."
Late one afternoon when it is time for dinner, a father and mother discover their 5-year-old son is missing. They find him on deck. He has climbed 30 feet up the rigging. His father climbs up to save him, but the boy falls to the deck and dies. The mother is distraught and refuses to put him over the side to be eaten by sharks like her mother was. She finally agrees to put him over the side if the ship's carpenter will build a coffin so the sharks won't eat him. He does, and they fill one end with coal. After a sad funeral, they slip the coffin into the water, expecting it to go down, but it doesn't. It just floats off as the grief- stricken mother and father watch.
After a few weeks, the ship hits a spell of settled weather where the ship hardly moves. The Saints spend time making tents, playing games, and keeping busy. The Tents of Israel Ceremony is performed. The crew mocks the ceremony by having one of their own. This brings a little tension, but also adds humor to the situation.
Soon the ship comes close to the banks of New Foundland. It passes icebergs and the weather gets very cold. The church leaders and crew do some fishing and give the fish they catch to the Saints.
The fog rolls in and the bells are sounded constantly.
One night while everyone is below at dinner, Titus Holt takes advantage of the fog on deck to attack Eleanor Wise. She is able to fight him off. He is arrested, flogged 20 stripes by the Captain, and confined to his quarters for the rest of the trip, barring any emergency situations.
The fog lifts and the ship starts to make good time. The ocean starts getting very rough, however, and the barometer shows they are coming into a hurricane. The Captain informs the President that they will sail north to avoid the hurricane, but he finds out they can't outrun it. It is very violent.
The Saints are ordered below, and as the sailors batten down the hatches, Titus Holt, who has been released to help in the storm, yells down the hatchway, "We're all going to Hell together!"
The storm rages for 3 days and everyone is lashed to their berths. They all become seasick again. As the sails are torn and masts broken, the tiller rope breaks, and the crew can't navigate the helm. The ship is at the mercy of the storm. Finally the Captain comes to the President to tell him that it looks like the ship will go down and to prepare the Saints for a watery grave. The President calls the Priesthood leaders together and they retire to the galley to call upon the Lord to calm the waters. The ship is hit by a huge wave that broaches the ship. (lays it on its side) The ship appears to be lost, but the prayers of the leaders are heard, and the ship miraculously uprights itself again, and the severity of the storm lessens.
As the crew tries to fix the sails, and assess the damage, Titus climbs up to put metal on a cracked mast and lash it with chains. As he works, the mast won't hold and snaps and falls on Titus' upper leg. The bone sticks through his pants.
He is taken to the ship's doctor, who announces that his leg will have to be amputated. Titus protests to President Brammal, begging him to try to set his leg because he doesn't trust the drunken doctor. Brammal sets the leg. Titus lies in pain for several days.
Finally infection and high fever set in, due to poor care from the doctor. Eleanor discovers Titus' condition when she comes to the hospital to get some medicine. She informs Elder Tippets, who confronts the doctor. They call the Captain and Brammal. Now, the Captain insists on amputation. Desperate, Titus calls on the President to give him a blessing because he saw how the ship was saved and the storm quieted through his prayer.
Eleanor is called on to clean the wound three times a day. She doesn't want to because of all the trouble Titus has caused, but decides to do it. She calls on her sisters to help. Titus has been truly humbled, and through the help of the Seven Sisters, he slowly improves.
The ship starts to sail with good speed. When they get about 500 miles from land, a sparrow flies on deck. They are getting close to New York. They have a contest to see who can see the Sandy Hook Lighthouse first. Finally one night, the Twins spy a light in the distance. "Land Ho!" The Saints have a wonderful celebration that night.
The Amazon finally arrives in beautiful New York City. The Pilot comes on board with bad news that Lower Manhattan has had riots for the past 5 days because New Yorkers were protesting the Conscription Act, which drafted men unfairly to fight in the Civil War. There had been hundreds of people killed and injured in this terrible riot, as well as millions of dollars worth of damage to property.
The time spent waiting in the English Channel delayed the ship and had been a blessing in disguise because they arrived just after the riots were over. They felt the hand of God in their safe arrival.
Important to the story is that Alfie has been working on Lizzie throughout the voyage to go with him to the gold fields in San Francisco. Even though he is a powerful persuader, she eventually decides to stay with her new "sisters" who have treated her like more than a street scamp from the London slums.
When the Saints are on the dock awaiting the barge to take them to Castle Garden, Caroline's purse is cut by some sharpers. She cannot continue to Florence because she is without funds for the ticket.
Lizzie, seeing this, has a change of heart and offers her Perpetual Emigration Fund letter to Caroline. She tells the priesthood leaders and her sisters that she is going to stay with Alfie.
The sisters are heart-broken to lose one of their Seven. As they are loaded on the barge ready to go, President Hart comes up to President Brammal with a newly widowed sister from another ship, who is eight months pregnant.
He asks if the sisters would like another sister so as not to break up their "Lucky Seven." They are a little stunned to learn that Alenda May Poulsen is from Denmark and can speak very little English, but they are overjoyed to welcome her into their family.
The Saints are taken to Castle Garden to register as immigrants and to pass inspection. The Saints spend the night on the floor along with 4000 other immigrants from many nations.
At 2:00 a.m. in the morning, Lavinia can't sleep and makes her way to the famous stage where Jenny Lind once sang. She looks out at her sleeping audience and sings "I Know that My Redeemer Lives."
As she sings, we see the faces of immigrants, some asleep, some listening, some crying, some singing along with her, and we see what makes this nation great. The hope in their faces is inspiring, and the Seven Sisters will continue their journey all the way to the Salt Lake Valley for a new life with their brothers and sisters in the Gospel of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.