In 1981, June Kashpaw is traveling home when she is called into a bar by a man she thinks she knows. She needs money so agrees to leave with him, out into the winter countryside; they have sex in his car. Moved by a feeling she cannot explain, June gets out of the car and starts walking through the snow. She is never again seen alive.
June’s niece, Albertine Johnson, hears about her aunt’s death much later, after the funeral, when her mother writes to let her know. Albertine is angry, as she had been fond of her aunt, but sees the late notice as typical for the Kashpaw family. The family’s complex structure generates incomprehensible drama, and the family’s history goes back to the time of Rushes Bear and the division of American Indian land. June had married her cousin, Gordie Kashpaw, to general disapproval, leading this latest generation into even more drama.
After June’s disappearance, Albertine’s mother, Zelda, and her Aunt Aurelia had organized a family gathering. Joining Albertine at the gathering are June’s son, King Kashpaw; his wife, Lynette; and their son, King, Jr. Brothers Nector and Eli Kashpaw still hold the family’s land. Nector, married to Marie, had been educated in the white school, while Eli had remained at home—hidden—and received a more traditional education. Nector and Eli represent two strands of family history, and Albertine feels at a loss to retrieve much of that history now that Nector’s memory is fading.
The family gathering is contentious. King, Jr., is drunk, abusive, and violent. He has used his mother’s insurance money to buy a large new car and feels guilty about doing so. Unable to articulate his grief over his mother’s death, he and Lynette fight, damaging the pies being baked for the gathering. Albertine, meanwhile, has fled with another of June’s sons, Lipsha Morrissey, who had been adopted by the Morriseys. Lipsha and Albertine sit in the darkness, talking. Allegedly, Lipsha does not know his father’s name.
Fifty years earlier, Marie Lazarre is determined to become a nun at the Sacred Heart Convent, having been a pupil at the school. However, she is bullied and abused by one of the nuns and runs away. She encounters Nector as he heads to the market, and in a bizarre encounter, they have sex. They later marry, even though Nector had been determined to marry Lulu Nanapush.
Fifteen years later, Marie, who has rejected the Lazarre family, reluctantly takes in June, her sister’s daughter. Later, she becomes reluctant to raise her own son, Lipsha. June’s cousins attempt to hang June, at her own urging. Eventually, she rejects Marie’s family and moves into the woods with her Uncle Eli.
It is now 1957, and Lulu Lamartine, formerly Nanapush, has led a wild life. She has eight sons, although it is not clear who their fathers are. Beverley Lamartine, brother of Lulu’s late husband Henry Lamartine, thinks Lulu’s youngest child, Henry, Jr., is his and wants to claim him. He has dreamed of raising Henry, Jr., but cannot get up the courage to ask Lulu. In the end, he leaves without Henry.
Nector reflects on life with his wife, Marie, who has adopted many children to compensate for the loss of her own. He begins an affair with Lulu and determines to leave Marie for her. When he changes his mind, he burns his letter to Lulu, and in doing so accidentally burns down Lulu’s house, a mystery that remains unsolved for many years. When she discovers Nector’s letter to Lulu, Marie determines to ignore it and hold on to Nector.
It is now 1973, and Albertine is thinking about her dreams of leaving for the city and meeting Henry, now home from his time in Vietnam. She goes to his hotel room, reluctantly, and they go to bed together. While in the grip of post-trauma nightmares, Henry rapes her.
Henry’s brother Lyman recalls the car that he and Henry jointly bought and refurbished. After Henry had returned from the war, traumatized, Lyman had vandalized the car to prompt a response from Henry. Henry restores the car a second time, and he and Lyman take a drive. Lyman tells everyone later how he had witnessed Henry’s death. He claims that Henry killed himself by driving the car into a river.
It is now 1980, and Albertine is remembering the story of Gerry Nanapush—a career criminal, alleged murderer, and serial “escaper”—and his wife, Dot. Dot is pregnant, and Gerry is desperate to get out of prison to be with her for the birth of their child. He escapes, briefly, and is caught and taken back to jail.
Lipsha, who had been raised by Marie and Nector, has stayed with them but is conscious that he is only tolerated by Marie. He thinks about his relationship with them, and of Nector’s declining memory. Lipsha has healing skills but, despite Marie’s urging, finds he cannot do anything for Nector; indeed, he is not sure he should try to help him. He is aware of Nector’s affair with Lulu and is present when Nector confesses to having caused the fire that destroyed Lulu’s house. Lulu, however, does not understand the concern, and the issue is dropped. Lipsha eventually makes a love medicine for Marie and Nector, at Marie’s request, because she believes that he is still chasing Lulu. Nector chokes on the medicine and dies, but Marie is content, believing that he returns to her from beyond the grave. Lulu and Marie finally make their peace and become friends. Together they work on local issues.
After hearing the truth from Lulu, Lipsha finally reveals that he knows the identity of his mother and his father, Gerry Nanapush. Lipsha, who is running from the military police, has a vision that his father is about to escape from prison, so he heads for Minneapolis to meet him. Here, he runs into his childhood tormentor, King, who also knows that June was Lipsha’s mother; because of this, King hates Lipsha. The two find Lipsha’s father, who reveals that in the past, King had turned informer against him. They play cards for ownership of June’s car, and Lipsha wins—he had cheated. The authorities soon arrive to recapture Gerry, but he escapes. Later, Lipsha takes his father to the Canadian border.