Jean Francois Gravelet has lived much of his life performing on a wire high over the heads of admiring crowds below. But the reputation of a tightrope walker is as precarious as the possibility of a misstep, and Gravelet decides to leave France to make his name by risking the ultimate fall: a wire walk across the great American landmark, Niagara Falls.
Widowed schoolteachers in Nebraska of 1901 don't have many options. So it looks as though Anna Edson Taylor's life will be just what people expect, until she answers an advertisement offering a brave "man" a chance to put his name in history books by riding inside a barrel over Niagara Falls.
When Taylor is the only person brave enough to ride a wheelbarrow across Gravelet's high wire, the exploits of the two are irrevocably entwined. They tell their stories in parallel, but contradictory, narratives, speaking eloquently about the natures of men and women, how to find balance in life, and living together on the edge of the abyss.