Nanapush, an older member of the Anishinabe tribe, speaks to his granddaughter, Lulu, telling her the history of her mother’s life and explaining why her mother sent her away to boarding school. He provides context by saying that, at the time he met her mother, Fleur Pillager, the Indians were dying of consumption and the government was intruding, trying to take the Anishinabe land.
In the story, Nanapush’s relatives have all passed away, and all of the Pillager family is thought to have died in their remote cabin on Lake Matchimanito, but when Nanapush goes there to seal the cabin with a policeman, they find young Fleur still barely alive inside. Nanapush brings Fleur back to his cabin where the two mourn their lost families together, growing weak with grief. One day, Father Damien, a young priest from town, appears and tells them that another Pillager has been found on an island alone in the woods—Moses Pillager, who seems to have gone “half-windigo” (become a kind of monster) in his attempt to survive the disease. Fleur and Nanapush welcome the priest and feed him, talking nonstop. After this, Nanapush asks Fleur to stay with him in her cabin, but Fleur believes she must return to her cabin to protect her land.
Pauline Puyat explains that she left her father on the reservation to live in the town of Argus so that she could embrace modern ways more fully, despite her father’s protests. She lives with her Aunt Regina and young cousin Russell, and Pauline’s companion Dutch James, who works at the butcher shop. Fleur has come to town to take work in the butcher shop, too, when Pauline begins doing odd jobs there as well. Pauline is interested in Fleur, watching her closely, but generally invisible to everyone around her. Over a series of nights, she watches Fleur winning exactly one dollar each night in card games with the men who work at the butcher shop. The men, skeptical that she could so consistently win the same amount, grow frustrated and attack her, raping her in a barn behind the shop. Pauline witnesses this attack, but does not try to stop it.
Fleur leaves town and, soon after, a storm destroys the shop, though the only men hurt are the men who harmed Fleur, found frozen dead in the meat locker. Fleur is believed to have caused the storm, but Pauline reveals it was she who locked the door to the freezer. It is discovered that Dutch James is still alive. Fleur has a baby and the town speculates about who the father might be.
Nanapush tells how Fleur returns to the reservation and people speculate about how she earned the money to pay off her land fees. Eli, a young man, seeks advice from Nanapush on how to seduce Fleur, and his mother Margaret is scandalized when a spy she’s hired reports back their conspicuous coupling in the woods. Nanapush takes Margaret out to Fleur’s cabin to confirm that she is indeed pregnant, though Margaret isn’t convinced the father is Eli and not the lake monster or one of the men from the butcher shop. Fleur gives birth to a girl when a bear, drunk on reservation wine, wanders into her cabin. Nanapush tells the priest the baby’s name is Lulu Nanapush, naming her after his own deceased daughter and continuing on his name despite being otherwise childless now.
Pauline dislikes her life with Regina and Dutch, whom her aunt nurses back to health after he is frostbitten in the meat locker. She goes to the Morrissey farm to convince Bernadette that she was beaten in her last home, and asks if she might live with the Morrisseys. Bernadette teaches Pauline to tend to the dying and prepare the dead for burial. She visits the Pillager cabin, interested in the attraction between Eli and Fleur, but they pay her little attention. Napoleon, Bernadette’s drunk brother, makes some passes at her, but she demurs. Angry at the love that Eli and Fleur have for one another, she goes to Moses Pillager to attain a love medicine that might lure Eli to one of Bernadette’s daughters, Sophie. Pauline later gives into Napoleon’s advances. Eli takes day work on the Morrissey farm and slowly the potion works on him, until he eventually has sex with Sophie in the water on the edge of the farm. They are discovered, and Eli goes to hide in the woods, while Sophie is possessed by a spell Fleur has placed on her, kneeling outside the Pillager cabin, catatonic. Clarence Morrissey, Sophie’s brother, steals a statue of the Virgin Mary from the church to shine on Sophie and break the spell, and Pauline sees a vision in which the Virgin cries. Pauline collects her frozen tears, but they melt in her pockets, so she has no evidence.
Eli comes to live with Nanapush for a time, until Nanapush teaches him how he might win Fleur back by humbling himself. Nanapush and Margaret discover a companionship between them. One night, on the way home from church, they are captured by Clarence and Boy Lazarre. The two men cut off Margaret’s braids to humiliate her in the way her son, Eli, has humiliated their sister. After this, Fleur shaves her head in solidarity and casts a spell on Boy Lazarre, so he soon dies. Nanapush and Margaret’s younger son Nector set a snare to kill Clarence, but Nanapush and Nector have mercy on him and he survives the trap.
Pauline discovers that she is pregnant with Napoleon’s baby and tries to abort it, but Bernadette convinces her to keep it. During birth, Pauline decides she doesn’t want to let the child out of her, and that it would be best for both of them to die together, but Bernadette wrenches the child out and adopts her, naming her Marie.
Pauline goes to the convent, begins having visions of Jesus visiting her at night, and comes up with unusual ways of punishing herself in the name of the Lord. She makes it her mission to go to the Pillager cabin in an attempt to convert them, but they ignore her or make fun of her strange brand of self-flagellation. Fleur becomes pregnant a second time, but again the baby’s father is a mystery, as Eli believes that the lake monster might have fathered it.
Fleur begins to birth the child too early and Pauline is unable to prevent it. Lulu runs to get help while Fleur and Pauline travel to the land of the dead, where Fleur gambles for not just the newborn baby’s life, but also Lulu’s, who she learns is also in danger. She wins Lulu’s life, but not that of the baby. Nanapush and Margaret find Lulu freezing in the snow, and Nanapush nurses her back to health.
The people living at the Pillager cabin have run out of food and hear that they owe great sums of taxes on their lands. Fleur seems weakened in mind and body, and overly attached to Lulu after the death of her baby, and Nanapush asks Moses Pillager to hold a ceremony to help heal her. Pauline also appears at the healing ceremony, and badly burns her hands trying to prove the supremacy of Christianity over the old native ways. The family finally gathers enough money to pay off the taxes on the Kashpaw and Pillager land, with Father Damien donating the last quarter, and Nector and Margaret take the money to town to make the payment to the Agent.
Pauline returns to the convent, where Sister Saint Anne nurses her back to health. She decides to make one more trip to Matchimanito in which she will spend forty days and nights on a boat in the middle of the lake, waiting for the devil in the form of the lake monster to appear to her. When she drifts to shore only a day later, she kills what she believes to be the lake monster with her rosary, but realizes afterwards that she has killed Napoleon. She drags him into the woods and returns to the convent. She takes her orders, takes the name Sister Leopolda, and is assigned to teach math at a Catholic school in Argus.
Nanapush goes to the Agent to discover that Margaret and Nector had only had enough money to pay off one of the allotments with the imposed late fee, and so they paid only for the Kashpaw land—not the Pillager land—without telling the others. Eli asks Fleur to marry him so that they might live together on the Kashpaw land, but Fleur refuses. Eli promises to earn the money to buy back some of her plot.
Napoleon’s body is found, and Fleur is assumed to be the killer. Lulu is sent away to school to protect her from all the threats facing the reservation. The men from the lumber company, including Eli, who has taken work with them, tell Fleur she must leave their land, but Fleur causes many of the trees to fall down around them, and then heads south, to town, on her own. Nanapush involves himself in government in an attempt to reclaim Lulu as his own, and he and Margaret eventually collect Lulu from her boarding school.