An awkward midwest girl, Ruth, is growing up in the small town of Honey Creek, Illinois. Her father, Elmer, left her family when she was ten, which left her mother, May, very bitter. May is extremely unhappy with and disappointed in Ruth because she is nothing like her shining brother, Matt, who is a mathematical genius with a scholarship to MIT, while Ruth is considered remedial. Their mother May is crushed when Matt moves away to Boston after graduation and she is left with Ruth, who takes a job with her at the local dry cleaner shop.
One hot night at the local lake, Ruth meets Ruby Dahl, a local male ne'er do well. When Ruby later takes Ruth out on a date, he takes advantage of her naiveté, but Ruth continues to see him and after several dates they decide to get married. Ruby moves in with Ruth and May, and May's oppression and Ruby's stubborn laziness frequently come to a head, causing frequent tension at home.
Ruth's life is bleak and somber, and even motherhood fails to bring the joys Ruth expected. Seasonally, winter brings on bitter cold, both in the weather and in the emotional standoffs in the Grey Dahl house. Ruby, who has descended into alcoholism and frequent drug use, begins acting more erratically. Family tensions explode result in a crushing tragedy that seems more than Ruth can bear.