The novel is set in the lush mountains along the coast of British Columbia in Canada, just north of the state of Washington. The Indian village of Kingcome lies in the shadow of "Whoop-Szo", or the "Noisy Mountain", so named because of the frequent noisy, clattering rock slides to which the mountain is prone. According to ancient lore, in the village's early history, Kingcome was attacked by enemies, but "the spirit that lives in Whoop-Szo...heard (them) coming and sent down a slide and buried (the attackers)" (Chapter 1).
Noisy Mountain is directed related to the tragedy which results in the death of the young protagonist in the story, the missionary Mark Brian. Mark is out on the vicar's boat with his friend Jim Wallace, searching for a hapless tribesman who had gotten drunk at a beer parlor at a float store, stolen a small motor boat, and heedlessly set out to sea, "despite gale warnings, and predictions of a storm by nightfall". Since the vicar's boat is the fastest in the village, Mark was asked to help in the search for the wayward young man (Chapter 22). While they were navigating the river, the gods that live on Noisy Mountain sent down another slide, instigated by a lightning bolt which struck a tree, and the vicar's boat was caught in the falling debris and wrecked. Jim survived the disaster, but Mark, tragically, did not (Chapter 23).