The death of their parents, when Kate is seven years old, Bo a toddler, and her brothers in their late teens, threatens the family with dispersal and seems to spell the end of their parents' dream that they should all have a college education. Luke, the oldest but not the most academic, gives up a place at a teachers college in order to look after the two youngest and allow Matt, academically brilliant and idolised by Kate, to complete his schooling and compete for university scholarships.
This sacrifice leads to much tension between the brothers. Both work intermittently for a neighbouring family, the Pyes, who for several generations have suffered from fierce conflicts between fathers and sons. In the final crisis, Matt, after winning his scholarships, discovers that he has made the meek and distressed daughter of the Pye household, Marie, pregnant; she also reveals that her father, Calvin Pye, has killed her brother, who was thought to have run away from home as several other Pye sons had done. Calvin Pye kills himself, and Matt has to give up his plans for education to marry Marie.
Kate sees the loss of Matt's potential academic career as a terrible sacrifice, and is unable to come to terms with Marie or Matt thereafter. The dénouement of the adult Kate's story comes when she returns to Crow Lake for Matt and Marie's son's eighteenth birthday, introducing Daniel to her family for the first time. In the course of this visit, she is made to realise - first by Marie and then by Daniel - that Matt's loss though real was notthe total tragedy she had always considered it, and that it is her sense of it as tragic that has destroyed her relationship with him. The book ends with her struggling to come to terms with this view of their past and present relationships; the struggle is left unresolved but the final tone is optimistic.
The book is essentially a double Bildungsroman, in that the development of both Matt and Kate is charted; but whereas we see the key events in Matt's young adulthood more or less in sequence, the key events in Kate's are sketched in from both ends, towards a crisis that in terms of events is Matt's but psychologically is more significant for Kate. The mixture of perspectives involved in Kate's story allows the author to relate violent events and highly charged emotions in a smooth and elegant style, a quality for which the book has been widely praised by reviewers.