In 2001, Mother Suzanne Ravenel, now in her 80s and nearly blind, begins recording a memoir of her decades as headmistress at Mount Saint Gabriel's, a North Carolina school for girls. Mother Ravenel cannot help dwelling on her worst time there, the school year 1951-1952. She uses the words "catastrophic," "repercussions," "tragic" and "toxic" when she thinks of what happened. This musing sets up the central mystery for readers, as we wonder what dire events could have transpired.
Mother Ravenel's pages are interspersed with tales from that school year (and eventually from 2007), centered on various players in the un