The year is 1959, and a Georgian preacher named Nathaniel Price brings his entire family—his wife, Orleanna Price, and his four daughters, Ruth May, Adah, Leah, and Rachel—to the Congo. Nathaniel (Nathan) aims to spread Christianity to the “unenlightened” people of the world, despite the fact that the Congolese already have their own religious traditions. The novel is narrated from the perspectives of the five Price women.
Nathan is a hypocritical, boorish father and husband, and his wife and children secretly resent him. Ruth May, who’s only five years old, is terrified by her father, and by his sermons on Jesus Christ. Leah and Adah, who are in their mid-teens, are identical twins, except that Adah suffers from hemiplegia, a blood condition that leaves her unable to control one side of her body. Because speech is difficult for her, Adah spends long chunks of time thinking of elaborate word games, many of them based around satirizing her father’s pompousness. Adah and Leah are both highly intelligent, despite the fact that Nathan doesn’t entirely approve of educated, empowered women. In spite of her distrust for Nathan’s Christian ideas, Leah admires her father’s tenacity and drive—nevertheless, Nathan seems not to care much for her. Finally, there’s Rachel, the eldest Price daughter, who’s superficial and vain, and seems to share her father’s contempt for the Africans, with their “ugly bodies” and “dark skins.”
As the Prices arrive in the village of Kilanga, Nathan is disgusted by the nakedness of the Congolese, a fact that immediately alienates him from his community. Nathan further alienates himself by arguing that all the villagers should be immediately baptized in the nearby river—despite the fact that the river is infested with crocodiles, and poses a serious danger to children. Nathan acquires a reputation for being murderous and bloodthirsty, as the villagers seem to think that he wants to feed their children to crocodiles. The only thing that endears the Prices to the Congolese is Orleanna’s cooking—she bakes an elaborate feast of fried chicken that attracts hundreds of neighbors. Nathan resents Orleanna for being more successful than he in her “recruiting,” but Orleanna, a calm, quiet woman, is used to her husband’s rage.
Rachel immediately attracts attention from the villagers, due to her beauty and fair complexion. Ruth May makes friends with some of the local children, and teaches them the game “Mother May I?” Adah and Leah are quieter and more reserved—neither makes friends right away. However, Adah is immediately struck by the constant energy of life in the Congo: every animal and plant plays a part in the ecosystem.
Another important presence in the village is Eeben Axelroot, a resourceful man who owns a small plane. At various points, Ruth May notices that Axelroot has access to a radio and to diamonds, suggesting that he’s a more powerful man than he seems. In flashbacks, Orleanna remembers a time when Nathan loved her sincerely. This was before Nathan went off to fight in World War II, where his experiences in the Bataan Death March left him deeply traumatized. Orleanna also considers the rise of Patrice Lumumba, a young, charismatic Congolese dictator whose opposition to U.S.-sponsored capitalism has landed him in prison.
As the months go on, Nathan makes little progress in recruiting villagers to his church. Nevertheless, his wife and children become more connected to their new home. One afternoon, Ruth May breaks her arm and Axelroot has to fly her and Nathan to the nearest doctor. At the doctor’s, Nathan argues that Lumumba is an “agitator” and a danger to the Congo. Shortly afterwards, the Prices host Nathan’s translator and assistant, Anatole Ngemba, for dinner. Anatole is an educated Congolese man, and an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba—a fact that worries Nathan. Anatole tells Nathan that Nathan has thoroughly alienated Tata Ndu, the leader of Kilanga. Leah admires Anatole for his honesty and intelligence, and she begins to question her father’s authority, doubting whether he’s as brave and courageous as she’d previously believed.
Ruth May catches a horrible fever, a consequence of her refusal to take her malaria pills for the last six months. Meanwhile, Nathan gets a visit from the Underdown family—a missionary family that helped Nathan get set up in Kilanga. The Underdowns tell Nathan that Lumumba has been released from prison, and is about to become the leader of the Congo. Nathan argues that the Congo was better off when Europeans controlled it. Orleanna thinks—but doesn’t say—that Nathan is missing the point: the Congo is in danger now because European imperialists have systematically denied the Congolese education and wealth for decades.
Nathan and Axelroot fly to nearby Stanleyville to find more malaria pills in the hopes that they can cure Ruth May’s fever. Shortly afterwards, Nathan and Leah fly to Leopoldville, where they witnesses the inauguration of Patrice Lumumba. Leah begins to spend more time with Anatole, and she helps him teach schoolchildren in the village. Anatole tells Leah about the history of Belgian presence in the Congo, and about his support for Lumumba’s brand of socialism. Leah becomes especially conscious of her own whiteness, and feels guilty at being descended from Europeans who have contributed to misery in the Congo.
Unexpectedly, Tata Ndu asks Nathan for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Nathan refuses, and shortly afterwards, Tata Ndu informs Nathan that the villagers have elected to banish Christianity from the Congo altogether. Furious, Nathan continues to preach the Bible, despite the fact that almost nobody listens. Nathan further angers Tata Kuvudundu, the village witch-doctor, by suggesting that Kuvudundu is a charlatan. In the end, the Prices pretend that Rachel is engaged to Axelroot in an effort to discourage Ndu from his courtship.
One night, the Prices awaken to discover an enormous swarm of flesh-eating ants crawling through the village. While Nathan runs away, Orleanna makes sure that her children are all protected. With Anatole’s help, the Price children survive. Leah is so moved by Anatole’s generosity that she tells him, “I love you.” Anatole tells Leah not to say such things. In spite of the discomfort between Leah and Anatole, Anatole continues to look out for Leah. When Leah becomes adept at hunting, Anatole argues that she should be allowed to participate in the villagers’ annual hunt, over the objections of Tata Kuvudundu. In the end, Leah is permitted to hunt, and succeeds in shooting an antelope.
Only a few months in Lumumba’s regime, the CIA conspires to assassinate him—something that won’t be public knowledge for another decade. Lumumba is murdered, throwing the Congo into chaos. On the same day that Lumumba dies, Ruth May is bitten by a snake, and dies almost instantly. Orleanna in particular is devastated by Ruth May’s death.
In the aftermath of Lumumba’s assassination, life in Kilanga becomes highly dangerous: Lumumba’s successor, Joseph Mobutu, is a harsh, dictatorial leader. Orleanna decides that she can no longer endanger her children’s lives by continuing to live in Kilanga, so she leaves the community with Leah, Rachel, and Adah. Here, the Price women become separated: Rachel runs off with Axelroot, who promises her wealth and security, and Leah becomes gravely sick, meaning that she’s too weak to travel. While Anatole takes care of Leah, Orleanna travels back to Georgia with Adah.
Back in the U.S., Orleanna—still haunted by Ruth May’s death—becomes a devoted organizer in the Civil Rights Movement. Adah attends Emory University, and goes on to become a talented doctor. Her experiences in the Congo give her a novel perspective on the relationship between life and death—a perspective that makes her a talented researcher. Adah also begins to regain control of her arms and legs, as her hemiplegia has subsided.
Leah continues to live with Anatole, and over the years, they come to love each other deeply. Anatole becomes increasingly involved in the political opposition to Mobutu, with Leah’s full support. While Anatole campaigns and organizes demonstrations against Mobutu, Leah teaches African schoolchildren, often feeling the same deep sense of guilt for her whiteness. Suddenly, Anatole is arrested and thrown in prison. Although she’s devastated by this news, Leah continues to teach her schoolchildren, and remains faithful to Anatole. During this time, Leah learns from Tata Boanda, an old friend from Kilanga, that Tata Kuvudundu planted the snake that killed Ruth May.
Rachel marries Axelroot, who gives her wealth and security, but also cheats on her regularly. Rachel gets her revenge by running off with Daniel Dupree, a middle-aged ambassador. Almost immediately after marrying Dupree, she runs off with a much older man named Remy Fairley. Fairley is a prominent hotel owner, and when he dies unexpectedly, Rachel, now in her thirties, finds herself in control of a highly profitable hotel in Leopoldville.
The Price sisters’ fates cross again in the 1980s, when they agree to travel through Africa. On the trip, the three sisters come to agree that Nathan was an awful father, but also an important part of their lives. Leah reveals some news she’s heard recently: Nathan was executed by the villagers of Kilanga. A child was eaten by a crocodile and Nathan was blamed. At the end of the trip, Leah learns that Anatole has been released from prison, and they reunite, still very much in love. While she’s moved by the sight of Leah’s reunion with Anatole, Rachel decides that the only purpose of life is to look out for oneself.
As the novel reaches an end, the three remaining Price sisters and Orleanna travel to Africa in the hopes of returning to Kilanga and placing a special gravestone on Ruth May’s burial site. They return to the Congo, but are told that Kilanga “never existed.” In the Epilogue, Ruth May, speaking from the grave, tells Orleanna that her children love her enormously, and she encourages Orleanna to “move into the light.”