In the city of Lagos, the Ibo Aku-nna and her brother, Nna-nndo, are bid farewell by their father Ezekiel, who says he is going to the hospital for a few hours– their mother, Ma Blackie, is back home in Ibuza, performing fertility rites. It becomes apparent that he is much sicker than he let his children know, and he dies three weeks later. They have the funeral the day before Ma Blackie arrives; she takes them back to Ibuza with her, as she now becomesthe wife of Ezekiel’s brother.
The family is problematic in Ibuza– Ma Blackie has some of her own money, and so her children receive much more schooling than other children in the village, particularly the children of her new husband’s other wives. Aku-nna is blossoming, though she is thin and passive, and starts to attract the attention of young men in the neighborhood, though she has not yet started to menstruate. Her stepfather Okonkwo, who has ambitions of being made a chief, begins to anticipate a large bride price for her. Meanwhile she has begun to fall for her teacher Chike, who in turn has developed a passion for her. Chike is the descendant ofslaves – when colonization started, the Ibo often sent their slaves to the missionary schools so they could please the missionaries without disrupting Ibo life, and now the descendants of those slaves hold most of the privileged positions in the region.
Chike’s inferior background means it is unlikely that Okonkwo will agree to let him marry Aku-nna, although his family is wealthy enough to offer a generous bride price. When Aku-nna begins menstruating – the sign that she is now old enough to get married – she at first conceals it in order to stave off the inevitable confrontation. When she finally reveals that she has her period, young men come to court her and Okonkwo receives several offers. One night, after she finds out that she has passed her school examination (meaning she might become a teacher, earning money by means other than thebride price) she and the other young women of her age-group are practicing a dance for the upcoming Christmas celebration when men burst in and kidnap her.
The family of an arrogant suitor with a limp, Okoboshi, has kidnapped her to be his bride in order to“save” her from the attentions of Chike. On her wedding night, she lies and tells Okoboshi that she is not a virgin and has slept with Chike; he refuses to touch her. The next day, word of her disgrace has already spread around the village when Chike rescues her and the two elope, fleeing to Ughelli where Chike has work. The two begin a happy life together, marred by her guilt over her unpaid bride price – Okonkwo, furious, refuses to accept any of the increasingly generous offers made by Chike’s father, and has gone so far as to divorce Ma Blackie and torture a doll made in Aku-nna’s image.
When Aku-nna feels sick, she goes home. There she is not sure if she will have a baby. Soon the doctor in Chike´s oil company confirms that Aku-nna will have a baby. Later on when she feels sick and screams, Chike brings her to the hospital. There Aku-nna dies in childbirth. Chike christens his baby Joy.