The novel is divided into three sections narrated by three different Native American women: Rayona, Christine, and Ida. Rayona’s narrative begins at the hospital, where she is playing cards with her mother, Christine, who drinks heavily and is frequently hospitalized. Rayona’s father, Elgin, arrives and argues with Christine. Rayona leaves for the parking lot and finds Christine trying to break into their car. Christine says she is going to crash the car so Rayona can collect the life insurance payment. Rayona forces her way into the car and she and her mother drive off. Christine decides to leave their home in Seattle and return to the reservation in Montana where she grew up. Christine and Rayona spend the night packing and leave the next day.
The car breaks down a mile away from Christine’s mother’s house, and Christine and Rayona walk the rest of the way. Christine’s mother, Ida (whom they both call Aunt Ida), is not glad to see Christine. Christine runs off, leaving Rayona with Ida. Rayona does not enjoy the reservation. Aunt Ida is cold and distant, and the other children make fun of Rayona’s dark skin. The only place Rayona finds attention is at the local mission, where a priest named Father Tom persuades her to join the God Squad, a religious youth group.
Father Tom invites Rayona to a religious jamboree. They arrive early, so they stop for a while at nearby Bearpaw Lake. The two go swimming, and Father Tom suddenly makes suggestive advances toward Rayona. Embarrassed, he decides they should just return to the reservation. Rayona wants to go back to Seattle, so Father Tom arranges a train ticket for her. Rayona intentionally misses the train and sleeps by the tracks. The next day Rayona meets a gas station attendant named Sky, whose wife, Evelyn, sets Rayona up with a custodial job at Bearpaw Lake State Park. Rayona stays with Sky and Evelyn for the whole summer and makes up a family history, telling Sky and Evelyn that her parents are away for the summer. When Evelyn discovers Rayona is lying, Rayona confesses her real story.
Evelyn wants to take Rayona back to the reservation, but Rayona is confident that they will find her mother at a nearby rodeo. Rayona runs into Foxy Cree, one of the kids from the reservation. Foxy is supposed to ride in the rodeo but is too drunk to do so, so he convinces Rayona to ride in his place. Rayona performs valiantly in the rodeo and wins a prize for her persistence. Dayton, who owns the horse that Rayona rides and who is also Christine’s on-and-off boyfriend, takes Rayona back to his house. Christine is there, and she and Rayona immediately get in a fight. The next morning Christine and Rayona have a conversation out in the yard. Christine tells the story of how she had lost her faith when the world had not ended on New Year’s Day of 1960 as her religious teacher had predicted it would.
The narrative voice switches to Christine, whose story begins soon after the night when the predicted end of the world did not occur. As kids, Christine and her brother, Lee, are constant companions. Christine is very daring until she loses her nerve one day while trying to cross a natural bridge on a dare. A boy named Dayton moves to the reservation and begins following Lee everywhere. Christine decides she likes Dayton, and, thinking he is interested in her, tries to seduce him. Dayton rejects Christine, however, saying he thinks of her as a sister.
After high school, Christine works for the tribal council and goes out with many boys. She has a fight with Ida and goes to live with Ida’s sister, Pauline. When the Vietnam War begins, Lee tells Christine that he plans to dodge the draft but Christine tries to persuade him otherwise. She knows that if Lee dodges the draft it will hurt both her reputation and his prospects for a political career as a leader of the reservation. Dayton sees Christine’s point and persuades Lee to enlist.
Christine leaves the reservation for Seattle, where she goes through many jobs and apartments. One day she receives a letter from Dayton saying that Lee is missing in action. That night she meets an army corporal named Elgin in a bar and they begin a relationship. Christine eventually realizes she is pregnant. She tells Elgin and he proposes to her. Christine and Elgin grow apart after their wedding. Just before her baby is born, Christine receives a letter from Dayton saying that Lee is dead. Christine names her baby girl Rayona and leaves Elgin when Rayona is nine months old. The two get back together occasionally, but it never lasts long.
The army finally returns Lee’s body to the reservation, and Christine takes Rayona to the funeral. Christine discovers that everyone on the reservation blames her for Lee’s death because she had encouraged him to enlist. Christine returns to Seattle and tries to do a good job of raising Rayona. Ida stays with them for a week while she is in town to visit her aunt Clara in the hospital, but returns to the reservation.
Christine’s doctor tells her that her liver and pancreas are near failure and that she only has about six months left to live. She does not know how to react and tries to pretend everything is normal when Rayona comes to visit her. Christine tries to reconcile with Elgin, but he leaves the hospital abruptly. Christine decides her only option is to crash her car so Rayona can collect the insurance money. She tries to break into the car but Rayona catches her and they drive off together. Christine again plans to kill herself by crashing but is thwarted when the car runs out of gas. Christine then decides to return to the reservation so that Ida can look after Rayona when Christine dies.
Ida is not glad to see Christine, so Christine runs off. Foxy picks Christine up on the roadside and drives her to Dayton’s house. Christine’s arrival surprises Dayton, but he takes her in. The two settle into a comfortable routine, but Christine grows sicker. One day Ida comes over and says that Rayona has gone missing. Foxy and Dayton go to a rodeo with one of Dayton’s horses. Dayton returns with Rayona, who promptly gets in a fight with Christine. The next morning, however, Christine and Rayona seem to have reconciled somewhat, and Christine teaches Rayona to drive. Several weeks later, the two take a road trip and have lunch together at a diner.
The narrative voice switches to Ida. When Ida is a girl, her mother becomes sick, and her aunt Clara comes to help around the house. Ida likes Clara from the start, but her father, Lecon, acts strangely around Clara. One night, Ida comes home to find both her mother and Clara crying. She learns that Clara is pregnant and that Lecon is the father. Lecon is worried about the shame this pregnancy will bring on his family, so Clara suggests that the family claim that the child is Ida’s. They consult with Father Hurlburt, a trusted priest from the local mission, who suggests a motherhouse in Colorado where Clara can go to have her baby.
The nuns at the motherhouse in Colorado name Clara’s baby Christine. Clara wants to give Christine up for adoption, but Ida refuses and takes Christine back to Montana while Clara stays in Colorado. Ida raises Christine until Clara returns several years later and says she has lined up a family to adopt Christine. Ida wants to keep Christine, so she has Father Hurlburt bring over the documents that say Ida is Christine’s legal mother. Clara is furious and leaves.
Ida’s mother dies, her father runs off, and her sister, Pauline, gets married. Willard Pretty Dog, a boy from the reservation whom Ida had a crush on in high school, returns from World War II badly disfigured by a land mine. Ida and Willard end up in a relationship and live together. While Willard is in the hospital for reconstructive surgery, Ida realizes she is pregnant. When Willard’s operation successfully restores his good looks, his mother tells him to dump Ida because he can now have any girl he wants. Willard replies that even though Ida is neither pretty nor smart, she is loyal, and for that reason he wants to stay with her. But after Ida hears Willard’s assessment of her, she no longer wants to live with him and he goes home.
Ida’s son, Lee, is born and is a fussy child. One day Lee comes home bragging that he had to save his sister, Christine, because she got scared trying to cross a natural bridge. From that point, Lee becomes more confident as he grows older, while Christine turns inward and becomes devoutly religious. Christine suddenly begins to fear that she is going to hell. Ida consults Father Hurlburt, who says Christine’s fears likely stem from a religious prophecy that has caught on among some of the kids in Christine’s school. The prophecy claims that the world will end on New Year’s Day of 1960, when the pope is to open a letter supposedly written by the Virgin Mary. Ida humors Christine and follows all of her instructions in preparing for the apocalypse. When New Year’s Eve comes without any signs that the world is ending, Lee mocks both Christine and Ida, and Christine goes to bed very upset. Early on New Year’s morning, Father Hurlburt stops by Ida’s house. The two go up to sit on the roof, and in the darkness Ida begins to braid her hair.