In the waning years of the 19th century, Bessie Daniels grows up in the small town of Hot Springs in western North Carolina. Secure in the love of her father, resistant to her mother’s desire that she be a proper Southern belle, Bessie is determined to forge her own way in life. Or, as her Cherokee great-grandmother Elisi puts it, to be a whistling woman.
Life, however, has a few surprises in store for Bessie. First, there’s Papa carrying home a dead man, which seems to invite Death for an extended visit in their home. And shortly before she graduates from Dorland Institute, there’s another death, this one closer to her heart. But Death isn’t through with her yet. Proving another of Elisi’s sayings, "Death comes in threes," it strikes yet again, taking someone Bessie has recently learned to appreciate and cherish, leaving her to struggle with a family that’s threatening to come apart at the seams.
Even her beloved Papa seems to be turning into another person, someone Bessie disagrees with more often than not, and someone she isn’t even sure she can continue to love, much less idolize as she had during her childhood.