Fiona Campbell is a newcomer to tiny Ephraim, Wisconsin. Populated with artists, summer tourists, and the natives who keep things running, Ephraim has just enough going on to satisfy Fiona’s city tastes. But she is both fascinated and repelled by the furthest tip of Door County peninsula, Washington Island, so removed from the hubbub of modern life that its residents refer to it affectionately as being “north of the tension line.” Fiona’s visits there leave her refreshed in spirit, but convinced that only lunatics and hermits could survive a winter in its frigid isolation.
When Fiona and her friend attend a classmate’s wedding in Chicago, Fiona is instinctively drawn to a man she meets during a brief conversation. He is charming, witty, elegant, and clumsy. But circumstances conspire against them, and Fiona returns home without ever learning his name or how to reach him. In a foul mood, she is goaded into accepting a dare that she cannot survive the winter on Washington Island in a falling down wreck of a house.
Armed with an inflatable bed, a coffee pot, some very fine single malt scotch, and a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Fiona sets out to win the dare, and discovers that small town life is not nearly as dull as she had foreseen. Abandoning the things she has always thought important and regretting the loss of a man whose name she doesn’t even know, she encounters the vicious politics of small town life, a ruthless neighbor, the determination of the animal inhabitants in her house, a haunted ferry captain, and the peculiar spiritual renewal of life “north of the tension line.”