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The novel is the story, told in five voices, of the Price family who travels to the Congo as missionaries to the people of Kilanga province. The story is not told in a chronological format, but rather is divided into six books plus an epilogue. Each book contains several "clusters" of events upon which the narrative voices comment.
The actual chronological events of the story begin with the Price women trying to wear as many of their clothes as possible and filling their pockets with all sorts of household items in an attempt to meet the weight requirement of the airline. They arrive first in Leopoldville where they meet the Underdowns and are provided with information about their mission station. Eben Axelroot, pilot of a private plane, takes them to their final destination in the Congo. Although the Kilanga people had prepared a meal and an elaborate welcome, the initial meeting becomes more of a confrontation as Nathan indicates how poorly prepared he is for the culture or the people. Instead of delivering a blessing for the food, he begins with a harangue against nudity, bringing a self-conscious silence to the bare breasted women of the village.
The seasons of the Congo come and go as the family learns how poorly prepared they really were. Nathan tries to grow a garden by planting straight rows, only to have it washed out by heavy rains. He attempts to conduct baptismal services in the river, failing to understand that the people are afraid of the crocodiles. Gradually, his daughters, except for Rachel, make friends among the villagers in spite of him. Orleanna establishes at least an understanding with the women although she never has any close friends.
The central focus of Book 1 is Nathanís attempt to plant a garden in Kilanga. He rejects Mama Tatabaís explanation of the necessity of planting in hills and finds out the hard way that straight flat rows will simply be washed out by the heavy rains.
Nathan is desperate to get the cooperation of the people in converting to Christianity and submitting to baptism. At one point he fantasizes that he might be able to reach their hearts if he first reaches their physical need for food. He sets off some dynamite in the river, killing thousands of fish. While it provides plenty to eat temporarily, it also destroys more fish than the people can preserve; the result is weeks of a rotting stench and no success at converting the people.
In Book Two, which is sub-titled "The Things We Learned," Leah begins to develop a personal interest in the African people. Ruth May, who is much more intuitive and precocious than her family realizes, breaks her arm while spying on young soldiers in training and discovers that Eben Axelroot is smuggling diamonds. A conflict develops between Nathan and Tata Ndu because of the way the village people are neglecting the traditional gods. Adah thwarts Tata Nduís prediction of disaster when she apparently escapes an lion attack.
During the rainy season, malaria and dysentery bring the deaths of countless villagers. During this time, Orleanna tries to keep the girls inside to avoid contagions. They have numerous projects, including sewing projects for "hope" chests.
The family has been in Kilanga about a year, and the political situation has undergone some changes. The Congolese people demand and receive independence from Belgium and experience their first election. Patrice Lumumba becomes the new prime minister.