Robin, a history Ph.D. student struggling with a variety of scholarly and personal crises, has come to stay with her grandmother Kate in an old farmhouse in New England. But though Robin is looking for an oasis, a breathing space to finish her dissertation, she almost immediately finds much more than she had bargained for. As she reads through a box of letters written by the pre-Civil War occupants of the house, she finds her research taking her in unexpected directions -- unexpected for both her and her grandmother, who is less than pleased with what the letters may reveal about their family's history, and who has strong feelings of her own about the characters in the unfolding story.
Robin's letters were written by two sisters -- Sarah and Emily -- and by Emily's fiance, Jonas, an abolitionist minister traveling in New York during the early 1840s. Jonas leaves home, and the sisters, with the clearest of goals. He will work towards the end of slavery, and when he returns to Massachusetts, he and Emily will be married and will pursue the same work together. Jonas's plans are disrupted, however, by his meeting with the apocalyptic prophet William Miller. Miller preaches the imminent end of the world, the second coming of Christ, and believes that the end will arrive in less than a year. So along with those of thousands of others, Jonas, Sarah, and Emily's lives are derailed by the expectation of apocalyptic ecstasy. But what will happen to the men and women of the Burned Over District when all their hopes of heaven on earth are dashed? And what about those who love them, but cannot share in their beliefs?
Burned Over, as it shuttles back and forth between the two stories, builds a web of connections between the women who have shared the house. It is a powerful examination of the conflicting demands of passionate belief and family ties across a hundred and fifty years of American history.
William Miller's apocalyptic movement, which swept across upstate New York during the early 1840s, is the background for the play Burned Over. You can read more about Miller and the area at these sites: