Mark Brian, a young vicar, is sent to the First Nations village of Kingcome in British Columbia, home to people of the Dzawa̱da̱'enux̱w tribe of the Kwakwaka'wakw nation (who are given the now-archaic name “Kwakiutl” in the book). His bishop sends him, knowing that Mark is suffering from an unnamed, fatal disease, in order to learn life's hard lessons in the time left to him. Mark is unaware of his terminal illness and his bishop does not tell him.
Through various experiences and inter-relationships, Mark learns from the villagers and they from him. By the time he has spent one year there, he considers the small village his home and family, and they consider him part of their tribe.
Mark is about to be recalled by his bishop when he hears the owl call his name, which foretells imminent death according to Kwakwaka'wakw belief. Shortly after, his boat is engulfed in a landslide and he is killed.
The book presents both sympathetic and unsympathetic white characters. Its Dzawa̱da̱'enux̱w characters who have contact with the outside world variously succeed and fail to survive in it. The work is pervaded by a sense that the Dzawa̱da̱'enux̱w culture and way of life is dying as the young increasingly seek to integrate with the outside world.