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...
(The entire section is 1083 words.)