In 1831, Jane Foster has been married to Hiram Foster for four years. Plain in appearance, she had believed that Hiram had married her because of her fine qualities, but she has come to realize that he only married her in order to have someone tend his store in Sunrise, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, while he travels on extended buying trips. The last time he left on a trip he tried to sneak out without speaking to her. Jane accepts that her marriage will never develop into the loving relationship she wanted.
While Hiram is out of town, Jane goes to her brother’s house. She is horrified to discover her husband and her beautiful sister-in-law Polly making love. She is devastated by her feeling of betrayal but resolves to keep quiet about what she has seen rather than hurt her brother.
Hiram’s lengthy absences cause Jane financial difficulties because she refuses to touch the proceeds from any sales believing they belong to her husband. Her practice of accepting goods in barter from needy folk has also added to her problems. Jane’s aunt hires Daniel Colton, a well-known Philadelphia lawyer, to help unravel Jane’s financial problems.
Daniel has been the highly visible defense attorney in several murder trials. His desire to win an acquittal for his clients has led him to forget the high ideals that had originally prompted him to enter the legal profession. (Today he’d be described as suffering from “burn-out.”) He is impressed by Jane’s innate honesty and high principles.
Daniel is followed to Sunrise by the author of several sensational murder pamphlets which have dramatized the trials and the defendants.
Hiram’s body is discovered outside of town. The coroner rules that he has been poisoned, a murder method usually employed by women. Daniel knows that the spouse is always that first suspect in a murder case. Jane is certain that she will never be accused of Hiram’s murder because her honest reputation is well-known. She fears, however, that the pamphleteer may publish falsehoods that could influence public opinion. Moreover, notes are being left around town that suggest Jane is not as innocent as she appears which lead to the discovery of damaging evidence.
The evidence increasingly points to Jane as the murderess. Daniel will have to defend the woman he loves in the trial for her life.
Sunrise is set in a slower, simpler time, a time when doors were left unlocked and everyone knew everyone in a small community. The book’s pace unfortunately reflects that slower time -- much of the story drags. Jane spends a lot of her time straightening shelves, balancing the ledgers, and generally taking care of business as well as contemplating over and over how she absolutely cannot hurt her dear brother by revealing her sister-in-law’s infidelity.
The book’s greatest weakness, however, is the romance. Or what’s supposed to be a romance. A TRR G rating means “love scenes, but little or no sex.” On that scale, Sunrise deserves a capital G. Jane and Daniel share only one love scene, and that one isn’t any more torrid than a few comforting embraces. (There’s more heat between the adulterous Hiram and Polly.) Without the least hint of any sexual tension between them, there is a complete lack of foundation for that pivotal moment that they realize they are in love. This is Daniel’s moment of insight:
Stunned, he knew he had found the one woman on earth whose idealism, faith in humankind, and trust in justice shined bright enough to penetrate beyond the penumbra to the darkest shadows of his cynicism.
(The book’s tempo occasionally stumbles over sentences in that grandiose style. Fortunately most of the writing is more straightforward.) Daniel frequently ponders the lesson he learned from his father about appreciating “the jewel shining softly,” but that alone doesn’t seem sufficient reason for his falling in love with Jane.
Jane prides herself on her high principles, but others might characterize her as self-righteous and inflexible. She is confident that her unblemished reputation will protect her from any accusation of murder, but the good citizens of Sunrise seem awfully easy to convince she’s guilty given she’s lived in the small community all her life.
Jane’s recognition of her feelings for Daniel are easier to understand -- after the faithless Hiram most any man would look good. But love doesn’t change Jane -- she’s just as uptight and upright before and after. Many readers will crave more passion than these two generate.
The identity of the true murderer will be obvious to most. While there is extensive foreshadowing of the climactic murder defense, the courtroom scenes are fairly abbreviated. There’s not much drama considering the big build-up. Moreover, the neat resolution of the murderer’s fate is simply too, too convenient.
Readers may appreciate the uncommon 1830 Americana setting, but they will want to think twice, however, before picking up this book merely on the basis of its unusual setting.