Though her mother died when Orleanna was still a young girl and she grew up impoverished in Depression-ear Mississippi, Orleanna Price was happy as a child. Wild, beautiful, and passionately in love with the natural world, her carefree days came to an abrupt end when at seventeen she married Nathan Price. As his sense of guilt and doom infected her, and she gave birth to three children in the space of two years, she lost her spiritedness and became a passive vessel for carrying out her husband's will.

As Nathan's madness becomes more apparent, and her children's lives seem ever more tenuous, Orleanna struggles to revive the ability to act out on her own, to oppose her husband's will. However, it is not until Ruth May dies that she is finally able to muster the strength to flee from Nathan with her remaining daughters in tow. For the rest of her life she is overwhelmed by guilt, obsessing over her complicity in her daughter's death.