The novel opens in the year 1902, in the town of New Rochelle, New York, at the house of an upper class family comprised of Mother, Father, and the little boy. Mother's Younger Brother falls in love with the famous beauty Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband Harry Thaw has recently been charged with the murder of her ex- husband, architect Stanford White. Harry Houdini's car breaks in front of the family's house, and he pays them a visit. Father leaves on a trip to the Arctic with the explorer Peary.
An immigrant family, consisting of Mameh, Tateh, and the little girl, live in the Lower East Side in utter poverty. Evelyn Nesbit visits the Lower East Side, where she becomes enchanted with Tateh's daughter, and soon her visits become regular. The little girl becomes ill, and Evelyn cares for her. Mother's Younger Brother begins to follow Evelyn everywhere without her knowledge. Tateh, Evelyn Nesbit, and the little girl attend a socialist meeting whose featured speaker, Emma Goldman, criticizes Evelyn for employing her sexuality to gain prominence in capitalistic society. Mother rescues and claims responsibility for a newborn baby she discovers buried alive in her backyard; she soon learns it is the child of a black washwoman named Sarah.
Evelyn Nesbit and Mother's Younger Brother start to see a lot of one another. Mother's Younger Brother helps Evelyn search for Tateh and his little girl, but to no avail. Tateh and his daughter happily leave New York City and travel up the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, Houdini learns how to fly planes, and performs a demonstration for Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie. Father experiences a feeling of profound isolation upon his return to New Rochelle. Mother's Younger Brother becomes proficient in the use of bombs. Tateh and his little girl travel to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where there is a strike against the textile mills, and continue to many other cities.
In Philadelphia, Tateh finds a novelty store where the owner agrees to buy the movie books Tateh has invented. Tateh decides they will return to Lawrence to settle down. Henry Ford pays a lunch visit to J.P. Morgan and they discuss technology and religion. One afternoon, a black man named Coalhouse Walker stops by their home in New Rochelle, asking to see Sarah, who refuses to see him. After Coalhouse continues to call on her every Sunday, Sarah finally accepts his proposal for marriage. One day Coalhouse Walker is driving to New York when volunteers from the Emerald Isle firehouse bar his path. While Coalhouse seeks help from the police, the volunteers wreck his car. When Coalhouse complains he is arrested. Coalhouse dedicates the funds he originally intended for his wedding toward securing a lawyer. However, he cannot find a lawyer willing to represent him.
One night, Sarah leaves the house to attend an event at which Mr. Taft's Vice- President would be present; she wishes to petition the federal government on Coalhouse's behalf. However, the secret service men hit her hard in the chest; she soon grows ill and dies. Coalhouse and his followers cause an explosion at the Emerald Isle firehouse, killing four volunteers. Father and Mother's Younger Brother fight over the situation, and Mother's Younger Brother leaves the household to join Coalhouse and his followers. Mother and Father move to Atlantic City to escape the scrutiny of the townspeople. Willie Conklin also begins to feel a lot of pressure to leave town. Mother and Father meet Tateh in Atlantic City, and the little boy and the little girl soon begin to spend a lot of time together.
Coalhouse and his followers break into the library of J.P. Morgan, who is abroad at the time. The District Attorney Charles S. Whitman calls Coalhouse, who reiterates to him his original demands that they return his vehicle and that Conklin dies for Sarah's death. Booker T. Washington attempts to persuade Coalhouse to end his siege, but soon leaves out of frustration. Father then meets with Coalhouse, and approaches Whitman with his demands, at which point Whitman presents Coalhouse with both his Model T and Willie Conklin. After his followers leave free of punishment, Coalhouse exits Morgan's house, and Father, still inside, hears the firing squad. Police report that Coalhouse had made an attempt at escaping, but he more likely made a slight movement that he knew would cause his death. Mother's Younger Brother, having secured the use of Coalhouse's Model-T, travels all around the country and soon to Mexico, where he joins revolutionary forces and dies about a year later.
As tensions in Europe develop, World War I approaches. Morgan travels to Egypt, where he hopes a visit to the pyramids will restore his sense of spirituality. Rather, he cannot sleep and becomes disheartened by his failure to experience what he has expected. Soon his health rapidly deteriorates and he dies. The narrator describes the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countess Sophie. Father dies aboard the Lusitania, and a year after his death, Tateh and Mother marry each other.