There is a rare freshness to this story of friendship between two sisters. Pearl, the elder by a year, is orderly and practical, measured and valiant, and cannot imagine life without a man to give it shape and texture. Etta who has never been without admirers, has never depended on men for anything. She is eccentric, spontaneous, even "fast" by local standards; Etta has views on life, religion, and the rights of women that give her quite a reputation in 1940s small-town Montana.
By their mid-twenties the sisters have already lost their parents and the first men they loved: Pearl's fiancee to war, Etta's husband to a car accident. As the story opens, each is trying to find her emotional center, and with it, the strength to create a new life. Pearl falls for a rancher called Buck, who she hopes will pull her out of the terrible sadness she has felt for some time. Etta, who has a clear premonition that he will betray Pearl, tries to talk her out of it. But Pearl, pregnant and in hope, as much as in love, marries him anyway and bears him a daughter, Katie. Despite her initial misgivings about moving to his ranch, Pearl discovers that she is remarkably suited to the life there--better, in fact, than her footloose husband--and is happy for a time. Etta, however, was right; Buck is in many ways a tortured man, not good for anybody--least of all himself. Buck, who lost his mother as a young tot when she went back into their burning house after rescuing him, wonders much of his life what might be important enough to a woman to make her go back into a fire. The ghost of his mother and the omnipotent presence of the father who raised him and still lives close by, colors all the other relationships he will have, with his wife, daughter, and his many lovers.
Etta, meanwhile, maintains the house in town left them by their parents. She has a few lovers, but her fear of commitment and the lingering pain of her parents' and husband's loss keep her from any deep emotional involvement that would require her to risk change. Her deepest attachment is to her young niece Katie and the two become very close. And it is the young Katie, with the intuitiveness of Etta and the get-the-job-done character of Pearl, who bridges the gap between division and loss, present and past, damage and forgiveness. She becomes the force behind Buck's attempts to evolve, behaviorally and emotionally.