Eddie Bondo and Deanna Wolfe share a love of nature, and they begin their interlude as lovers before he even knows her name. Deanna is a Forest Service employee serving as a resident biologist-ranger overseeing a section of the Zebulon National Forest. She has a deep knowledge of the people and ecology of Zebulon Valley and a stake in the wildlife balance, which she suspects that Eddie will threaten.
Then readers meet Lusa, Cole Widener’s “over-educated” wife whom he brought back to his family’s farm from Lexington, Kentucky. Lusa and Cole fight about her unwillingness to mix with local people, and Cole feels the sting of her idea that the world they inhabit is stultifying. Her Arabic background and her love of moths and insects set Lusa apart from the family. Cole defends his people and the ways of farmers, as well as his closed-minded family, when Lusa tries to tell him her problems. Cole’s accident while driving a grain truck for Southern States changes Lusa’s life forever and adds another point of conflict with the family, since she inherits the farm.
The third pair of antagonists, Garnett Walker and Nannie Land Rawley, tussles over whether to spray weeds along Highway 6. She is afraid that the toxins will drift onto her organic apples, and he wants the spraying done to protect his chestnut seedlings.
Kingsolver considers this her most difficult novel, as the issues being considered are more important in the book than the characters themselves. She has said that it has no main character and encourages readers to look beyond the tensions of the human interaction. Over the course of the novel, the five chief characters remaining after Cole’s death explore their sexuality in relationships, through memory, and by reputation. Their relationships prompt talk based on ideas like those found in T. R. Paine’s work on keystone predators. The effect of removing even one such predator from an environment is profound, upsetting the fragile ecological balance beyond repair. All the human tensions in the novel relate in some way to balance and the sensible use of the land, as well as respect for all living things. The novel reminds readers that their interdependence with nature is inescapable.