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Pigs In Heaven opens in rural Kentucky, where Alice Greer has woken up in the middle of the night, feeling lonely. She walks outside in her nightgown, imagining herself the queen of her own humble garden. Her husband Harland and his fetish with their T.V. provides her little warmth. She thinks about her cousin, Sugar, her girlhood companion. Although now Sugar lives out in Oklahoma, on the Cherokee Nation, the thought of her makes Alice feel less alone.
Meanwhile, Alice's daughter Taylor and Taylor's adopted daughter Turtle are visiting the Hoover Dam, one of their stopping points on their tour of the Grand Canyon. When Turtle sees a man—Lucky Buster—fall off the edge of the dam, Taylor and Turtle hound down a rescue team, and are immediately catapulted into the media spotlight. After driving Lucky Buster home, they return home to Tucson, only to prepare for a trip to Chicago to appear on Oprah.
When Taylor and Turtle return home again, it seems as if their lives have almost returned to normal. They live with Jax, Taylor's boyfriend, on the outskirts of Tucson, in a community of humble stone dwellings inhabited mostly by artists and a few academics. Jax adores Taylor, but Taylor is not as sure about him. Before Taylor and Turtle can settle in again, however, Annawake Fourkiller, a lawyer from the Cherokee Nation, shows up at their home to confront Taylor about Turtle's adoption. Annawake saw Turtle on Oprah, and recognized her as a Cherokee girl. On the show, Taylor explained the peculiar circumstances of the adoption: a woman in a bar in Oklahoma handed the baby over to Taylor. The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 states that no one can adopt a Cherokee child without tribal permission.
Taylor is understandably enraged. She never asked for a child, and when Turtle came to her, she was half-dead, having been sexually abused. Three years later, Turtle is a happy, healthy, secure child, and all of a sudden, Annawake shows up telling Taylor that Turtle cannot belong to her. The next time Annawake comes to their home, Taylor and Turtle have fled.
Turtle and Taylor are staying at Lucky Buster's mother's hotel in Arizona, but when Taylor hears that Annawake is still on the scene, they flee to Las Vegas. At this point in the novel, Turtle begins to have bad memories of her abusive past, which cause her to disengage with the world around her. Any threat of separation, or fear of dislocation, seems to incite these episodes.
Taylor and Turtle arrive in Las Vegas, and immediately gamble away what little money they had. At that point, Alice comes to meet her daughter and granddaughter, to offer support, and to run away for good from her husband. They meet a waitress who has a nutty obsession with Barbie, and feeling sorry for her, give her a ride when they leave Las Vegas. At this point, Taylor has no idea where to go next, but only knows that she is still running from Annawake.
Meanwhile, in a tourist town in Wyoming, Cash Stillwater cannot seem to move beyond his tragic past. He has come to live there from the Cherokee Nation, having lost his mother, wife, and one of his daughters all in the same year. The daughter who died by suicide had a child, who a second daughter gave away one night at a bar in Oklahoma. Cash works in a health food store and makes beaded jewelry by night, but feels empty. When the owner of the jewelry store commits suicide, Cash decides he has to return home to the Cherokee Nation.
At home in Tucson, Jax receives a letter from Annawake the same night he begins an affair with his landlord, Gundi. The letter is one way that we come to sympathize with Annawake's position. She lost her twin brother, Gabe to a white family in Texas when they were only ten. The Cherokee tribe has suffered an inordinate amount at the hands of white Americans throughout history; now, white America is still taking children from the Nation. Also, Annawake explains that this pursuance is also for Turtle's benefit. Native American children who grow up outside the nation without a sense of their heritage, usually suffer greatly.
When Jax reads the letter to Taylor over the phone, she becomes more desperate, but Alice understands that at some point, they will have to talk to Annawake about this problem. Alice calls up her cousin Sugar and makes plans to go to the Cherokee Nation to talk over Turtle's case. Taylor, Turtle, and Barbie go on to Seattle, where they find a room to rent. Taylor has discovered that Barbie has stolen money from the Las Vegas casino, but condones her behavior. Taylor finds low-wage work in Seattle, and Barbie baby-sits for Turtle, until one night they find that Barbie has fled with all of Taylor's money. Feeling desperate, Taylor calls Jax, forgiving him for his affair, and finally figures she will go home. Unfortunately, Alice tells her on the phone from Oklahoma that Taylor has to come out to the Nation; Annawake is going to send her a subpoena.
Meanwhile, on the Nation, Cash Stillwater has returned, and he and Alice have started to date. Alice goes with him to a stomp dance, and finally feels completely part of a community. Alice has also met with Annawake, of course, who reports that there is a relative on the Nation missing a little girl, who might be Turtle. Alice and Cash figure out that they are both in the midst of trying to protect the same grandchild—Turtle. Annawake has actually orchestrated their romantic involvement, hoping some answer would come out of it.
When Taylor arrives, Turtle recognizes Cash right away, and he breaks down in cries of happiness. Both sides still do not want to give up Turtle. In a meeting with members of the Cherokee community, Annawake announces that through talks with the tribe social worker, they have decided to give joint custody to Cash and Taylor. Turtle will spend at least three months of the year on the Nation. Cash then asks Alice to marry him, suggesting that Turtle would be able to visit her grandmother as well as her grandfather during those months. In a symbolic sacrifice to Alice, he destroys his T.V. in front of the whole community.