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The Prologue describes the changes taking place in the once all-black neighborhood known as the Bottom in the hills above the once all-white town of Medallion, Ohio. The old buildings that once functioned as the site of a vibrant African-American community are leveled to make way for a golf course as rich white people begin to encroach on the Bottom.
Local folklore has it that the Bottom received its name from a slave owner's greedy deception of a slave. The slave owner promised the slave that he would free him if he completed some difficult tasks. In addition, he promised the slave a plot of good "bottom land" in the valley. When the time came, the slave owner didn't want to part with any of his good land. He gave the slave a plot in the hills, stating that it was the "bottom of heaven" because it was closer to God. The slave was delighted to accept the "gift." Only later did he realize that hilly land was extremely difficult to farm.
In 1917, 20-year-old Shadrack suffers a traumatic experience in World War I. Afterward, he awakes in a veteran's hospital to find a tray of food. He is comforted to see that food items are neatly contained in separate compartments. When he tries to eat, he is horrified to see his hands growing rapidly. When a male nurse tries to force him to eat, Shadrack fights back in hysteria. After he is placed in a straitjacket, he is "relieved and grateful" because he doesn't have to look at his hands. He longs to see his face, but, confined as he is, it isn't possible.
Shadrack is released from the hospital a year later because his ward is short on space. He is later picked up by the police as he sits on the roadside crying. In his jail cell, he looks at his reflection in the toilet bowl. He is relieved to find that he does indeed exist. The sheriff sends Shadrack to his home town, the Bottom, with a farmer.
Shadrack is terrified that he might die unexpectedly. He institutes a self-proclaimed National Suicide Day as a means of coping with his fears. Every January 3rd, Shadrack marches through town ringing a cowbell and carrying a hangman's rope. He shouts that people should kill themselves or each other if they want to. The residents are disturbed at first, but eventually National Suicide Day infiltrates the consciousness of the community, becoming a part of the routine of their lives.
Helene Wright, the daughter of Rochelle, a Creole prostitute, from New Orleans, was raised by her strict, religious grandmother, Cecile. Helene was safely married off at 16 to Cecile's great nephew, Wiley Wright. They built a respectable life in the Bottom where Helene becomes a member of the most conservative church. After nine years of marriage, Helene gives birth to her only child, Nel. She raises Nel under the same strict rules that governed her own childhood.
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