Saran Chandler sees her mother and baby sister sold by her evil stepfather, Enoch Jacobs, and only escapes the same fate herself when Enoch falls into the canal and drowns. She is determined to reunite her family, but has no money or friends - until she meets Luke Hipton, himself an orphan, and the two team up together. They end up in Wednesbury, a miserable Black Country town rife with poverty, but they do find kindly souls willing to share their meagre rations. When Saran comes upon an overturned carriage with a heavily pregnant woman inside, she safely delivers the baby and is given a brooch for her pains, then a small house, which she and Luke use to start their own nail-making business. She is a fair employer and offers the labourers of Wednesbury a better deal than they are used to but this brings her into conflict with local businessman Zadok Minch, a depraved man whose god-fearing exterior and respectable marriage conceal an insatiable sexual appetite and a lust for money. He wants both Saran and her property, but when she discovers that he was the man who bought her family, and he taunts her that his cruelty has sent both mother and sister to an early grave, she vows undying revenge. Minch has made several enemies, and in fact it is one of his sexual conquests who castrates and kills him. Saran is too late to save her mother, but does find her sister - and true love in the arms of Gideon Newell.