Phoebe Olcott must travel through the dangerous woods and mountains of Vermont and face suspicions from family and friends as she journeys from her little village in New Hampshire all the way to Canada to deliver important Loyalist documents during the American Revolutionary War. Phoebe Olcott is a timid, dutiful, mousy girl who never dreams about venturing out of her the little settlement of Hanover, New Hampshire, where she and her scholarly father live. The year is 1775 and Phoebe's handsome cousin Gideon informs her and his beautiful sister, Anne, that there is going to be a war between the British Loyalists and the Rebel Patriots and he plans on signing up to fight with the Loyalists. This causes a bit of controversy as Phoebe's father agrees with the Patriots and Gideon considers her father a traitor to the King. Phoebe is confused as she loves both her father and her cousin Gideon and can't reconcile the fact that they are on opposite sides of an imminent war. To her dismay, her father enlists to fight with the Patriots and is killed a month later at the Battle of Bunker's Hill, just outside Boston.
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Phoebe, now an orphan, lives with her cousins Gideon and Anne and her frail Uncle Josiah and her kindly Aunt Rachel in Orland Village. The next year, the thirteen rebellious American colonies declare their independence against Britain and her cousin Gideon enlists. Phoebe, having already lost a loved one to the war is afraid for Gideon's life, however Anne, being caught up in the romanticism of war, is proud of her brother. In 1774, the war has ravaged many parts of America, but Orland Village is yet untouched. Several states, such as Vermont, have already declared independence which has resulted in neighbors and friends turning each other in as traitor and evicting people from their homes or mistreating them. Orland Village has become a place dominated by Patriots and this makes Phoebe's adopted family nervous as everyone knows their son is a Loyalist.
One day, Phoebe, on a whim, decides to visit her old home in Hanover. When she gets there, she discovers that Gideon has been living there. Phoebe is horrified that Gideon is here as he is in danger if the Patriots find him as he is dressed up like a woodsman as that could only mean he is a spy. Gideon tells Phoebe that he had to risk coming back because he was on a mission. To Phoebe's dismay, Gideon asks her to deliver a love letter to his girlfriend. Phoebe doesn't think it is a good idea, however she always ends up giving into Gideon's requests so she agrees as long as he promises not to try to meet with Polly himself. That night, Phoebe can barely sleep. The next morning, Phoebe's nightmare becomes a reality – Gideon has been found and hung as a traitor. Phoebe is devastated and numbed from shock as she feels personally responsible for his death. In an old hollow tree where she, Gideon and Anne used to exchange notes when they were younger, Phoebe finds that Gideon has left a note there along with a pouch. The message says that if he is discovered, someone is to fulfill his mission for him. The pouch contains classified information – codes and names of loyal family members. Phoebe finds herself taking the pouch. She decides to fulfill this mission for Gideon, as she feels she must atone for what she did.
Phoebe sneaks some supplies and slips out into the night without telling anyone what she plans. She decides to follow the Conneticut river to get to Fort Ticonderoga which is near Lake Champlain as this is where she can deliver Gideon's pouch. Having grown up with Mohawk Indians and having listened to Gideon talk about his forest knowledge, Phoebe is familiar with some survival strategies. She remembers how to tell which direction is North from the moss growing on the trees and she can recognize some edible berries and greens. One day, she is startled by her cousin's cat, George, who turns out to have been stalking her the entire way from Orland Village. She is glad of George's companionship and together they traverse more wild forest and mountains. One day, she encounters Peter Sauk, a Mohawk Indian that her father once taught back in his school in Hanover. Peter Sauk is concerned that Phoebe is out here all by herself. After hearing her story, however, he sees that she is determined to complete this mission. To help her get into more appropriate clothing for travelling, Peter's sister gives Phoebe her moccasins, blanket and clothes.
On the next leg of the journey, Phoebe encounters a black bear cub which was the same cub she spied earlier in her travels. The bear cub's mother had been killed by wild wolves. Phoebe is wary of the bear cub however the bear cub insists on following her so she gains another animal companion on her journey. She names the cub Bartlett after an old woman in the village that he reminds her of. One day, she has a near encounter with a bunch of Patriot soldiers but she manages to escape. Finally, she arrives at Lake Champlain. After a brief search, Phoebe finds a boat and prepares to get into the boat and row herself over to the fort, however she is stopped by a young man. The young man thinks she is a rebel and a thief and Phoebe, after some hesitation, decides to tell him the truth. The young man is surprised and tells her that Fort Ticonderga is empty and all the soldiers have evacuated due to a rebel attack. Phoebe learns that the young man named Jem Morrissay is part of a Loyalist refugee group travelling to Canada up the Iroquois river. Phoebe recognizes some of the names he lists as the names in Gideon's note. Before they can talk further, Jem gets a scare as Bartlett joins them and later on, George, painting an absurd scene.
Phoebe decides to join Jem and his refugee group. Jem is impressed by her knowledge of directions in the woods and that she has managed to survive for so long on her own. When they reach the refugee camp, Phoebe is shocked to find her relatives are there. Anne in particular, is hysterical upon seeing Phoebe but the rest of her relations are filled with relief that she is alright. Phoebe decides she can't tell anyone about the secret mission that Gideon entrusted her. Anne unfairly treats Phoebe like a traitor as she wants to blame someone for her brother's death and Phoebe's father was a Patriot. She refuses to talk to Phoebe. Finally, there is more ruckus as Bartlett and George also join the refugee camp. Surprisingly, though, Jem sticks up for Phoebe's bear, preventing anyone from harming it.
Most of the refugees don't really care about Phoebe's background, however there are a few who are hostile towards Phoebe because of her father being a Patriot. One man in particular, Joseph Heaton, fancies himself the leader of their refugee camp and loves to boss everyone around. He doesn't like Phoebe and makes it a point to treat her like a traitor. He and Anne try their best to make Phoebe's time in the refugee camp miserable. Nevertheless, Phoebe settles into the routine of the camp, helping to cook food and babysit the little children, who are often neglected by selfish, preoccupied parents. The children love Bartlett and George and they immediately get along with Phoebe who is patient, kind and optimistic in nature.
As they travel to Canada, they encounter rebel soldiers and British deserters who all help themselves to their meager supplies. One of the British soldiers even steals a kiss from Anne, who before then had been sullen and depressed. After having her ego validated again by a British soldier, Anne regains some of her old spirit back but unfortunately this means she turns her nastiness onto Phoebe. Over the next few days, the travels become more difficult as supplies are done to the bare minimum. Several of the children also contract the measles. Phoebe and Jem bond over long nights tending to the fire and they exchange stories about their lives before the journey.
One day, however, Phoebe overhears Anne talking to Jem about her while she is washing her face by the river. Anne tells Jem that Phoebe is a spy and that it's her fault that they were kicked out of their homes. To make things worse, when Phoebe gets up from her spot by the river, she startles Anne who falls into the icy water. Anne wails again that Phoebe behaves like a spy and Phoebe is infuriated that Jem doesn't say a word in her defense but pulls Anne back to the camp. To make matters a little more depressing, Phoebe notices that Bartlett is leaving them more and more. Jem jokes that it's because he's growing up and going to be an independent bear, now. One night, however, one of the frailest children in Phoebe's care takes a turn for the worst and passes away. Phoebe is devastated and Jem tries to comfort her.
A few days later, the refugee group encounters a Patriot spy. Phoebe is the first to spot him and he tells her he doesn't mean to do any harm. Before he can get away, however, Joseph Heaton finds him and the men of the refugee camp capture him. The man is named Japhet Oram and he has a long reasonable story for why he is wandering the woods by himself. Phoebe doesn't believe him but she keeps this information to herself as she hopes that the refugees won't do something horrible like hang the man. There is also a bit of confusion since Joseph and Jem had seen Japhet briefly talking to Phoebe before they were within earshot. Japhet suspects Phoebe of being in cahoots with Japhet and Jem is hard-pressed to think otherwise. This angers Phoebe as she has had enough of the constant suspicions.
One night, Phoebe has a horrible dream that what happened to Gideon will happen to Japhet. So, when Jem is on guard duty, she waits for him to fall asleep before helping to free Japhet from captivity. At the last moment, Jem wakes up and Phoebe is forced to give him a blow on the head with a stick to knock him out before she runs away.
Phoebe thinks she has finally escaped the refugee camp, however Jem somehow catches up to her. Phoebe is so filled with emotion and righteousness about what she did that she tells Jem to leave her alone. She even threatens to jump off a cliff and into a waterfall if Jem gets any closer to her. Jem entreats her to return with him to the camp, but she refuses as she is certain that Joseph Heaton will immediately hang her as a traitor. Jem agrees to return to the camp and tell everyone he was unable to find her. He doesn't want Phoebe to be hanged or anyone to be hanged, for that matter. Jem asks Phoebe if he can come along with her but she thinks its better that he doesn't. Before they part ways, Jem confesses that he loves Phoebe.
Phoebe continues her journey truly alone, now, since she doesn't have George or Bartlett as companions anymore. She travels until she is weak from hunger and finally, she faints on the shore of a river. She is found by a kindly woman who nurses her back to health. The woman tells her she made it to Fort St John's on the Richelieu River in Canada. Phoebe immediately asks to see the Commanding Officer to explain her story and pass on Gideon's pouch. Everyone is greatly impressed that Phoebe carried this burden so far on her own. Phoebe learns that her refugees group has made it to Fort Sorel on the St. Lawrence River. She makes her way to the Fort where she is reunited with Jem. She is vindicated when her heroic story is finally revealed in its entirety to the refugees, silencing Joseph Heaten's and Anne's suspicions once and for all. Jem has enlisted as a soldier however before he leaves, he proposes to Phoebe and she promises to marry him after he returns from the war.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like that even though the story is written from the point of view of Loyalists, Janet Lunn doesn't truly take any sides and instead discusses the tragedy of losing lives on both sides of the war as portrayed through Phoebe's confusion about which side she is on.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was near the end, when Phoebe is vindicated in front of Joseph Heaton. Joseph had been so aggravating during the entire story and had made Phoebe very miserable many times. It was a great moment when Joseph Heaton was finally silenced by Phoebe's sheer heroism that ended up saving their families in the end, because the note she carried was proof that they were Loyalists and ensured them a spot in a Canadian settlement.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Phoebe, who is viewed by everyone as a most gentle and unobtrusive person, ends up surprising everyone with her courage and determination which outshines the more loudmouthed characters like Anne and Joseph, who try to paint themselves as more capable individuals but have nothing to show.