The novel opens in the black Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem, the year is 1926 and on an ice-cold winter morning, a woman named Violet Trace has thrown open her windows and emptied her birdcages of their flocks, including her favorite, lonely bird that always said "I love you." Violet is a fifty-year-old black woman, she is skinny and emotionally unstable. We learn that she has been living in Harlem for several years, but city life is difficult and the narrator hints that maybe the stresses of Harlem are finally wearing Violet down. On one afternoon, Violet began carelessly wandering the sidewalks and then, for no apparent reason, she sat down in the middle of street, surrounded by a few concerned neighbors. Violet is married and she lives with her husband, Joe Trace, but she is not wealthy as she makes little money as an unlicensed hairdresser, arriving at her clients' residences. Violet is lonely and regrets that she does not have an extensive family to fill the quiet of her apartmenta quiet that is exacerbated by her ejection of the birds. As Violet thinks about her loneliness and her grandmother down south, she has the sudden urge to build a family. She is convinced that this will breach the gap separates her from her husband.
Amidst the chaos of individual relationships, the City emerges as omnipotent and glamorous, a force that inspires and controls the courses of the human characters. Below the gaze of the city's skyscrapers, the ghost of Dorcas is haunting the Traces and while the Salem Women's Club was going to help Violet, she has been ostracized because of her inappropriate behavior at the funeral. Wholly detached from the moral commentary and judgment of her peers, Violet embarks upon a search to know everything about Dorcas: she visits Malvonne, whose apartment was used as a "love nest" for Joe Trace and Dorcas. After this, Violet learns the dances and music that Dorcas liked, and she talks to teachers at Ps-89 and JH-139. Dorcas' dignified aunt eventually warms up to Violet and eventually offers her a photograph of the young woman. This photograph is placed in a silver frame and kept on the mantle where Violet and Joe visit nightly, still separated by their silence.
Even though he has shot Dorcas, Joe is a well-mannered older man who does not feel guilt for his actions. Instead, his nightly vigils are his mourning for the love affair that has ended. Violet cannot sleep and she visits the picture at night because it is quiet. In contrast, Joe Trace's visits are the pure result of his melancholic and slightly exaggerated memory of Dorcas. Both of the Traces were "field workers" in Vesper County, Virginia and soon after meeting Violet under a walnut tree (in 1906), Joe proposed marriageand a move to Harlem. Joe's memories of this time, roughly twenty years before the present, include his intense passion for his new wife, Violet, as well as an encounter with a mysterious woman who is half-clothed and hiding in a bush. For some reason that is not revealed to the reader, Joe Trace, having grown up an orphan, has reason to believe that this mentally-incapacitated woman may be his mother. His last memory of Vesper County is the scene of his conversation with this woman, who is hiding in a hibiscus bush.
Joe recalls feeling a special bond with Dorcas because she is similarly motherless and Dorcas' history is not as extensive as his, though equally mysterious. The teenage girl hails from the black community of East St. Louis, Illinois and is described as an anonymous migrant among "a steady stream" who came to Harlem "after raving whites had foamed all over the lanes and yards of home." She remembers visiting a friend and being startled by screams coming from her street. Her house was deliberately set on fire and she remembers the realization that her mother and her doll collection were trapped inside and burnt alive.
Alice Manfred lived in Harlem for several years before she called for her niece, Dorcas, to live with her. One of earliest memories of Dorcas is a Fifth Avenue parade in July, 1917, where silent men and women marched to condemn the lynch riots that had just occurred in East St. Louis, Illinois. Alice's reason for continuing in Harlem, despite her overwhelming fear of the music and fast pace of the city, is never revealed, but Dorcas' arrival does allow Alice to make her fears and concerns vicarious. Dorcas lives in an apartment of oppressionher clothes are unflattering; Alice instructs her niece to be "deaf and blind;" she teaches her how to avoid anything that is living and unknown. Her "elaborate specifications" are a well-intentioned effort to protect Dorcas from the "Day of Judgment," "The Beast" and "Imminent Demise." Both the aunt and the niece, privately admire the songs and dances of the street, and Dorcas eventually acts upon her desires. Alice Manfred had "overnight business in Springfield" and Dorcas seized the opportunity to accompany her friend, Felice, to a dance party, where she (Dorcas) is awkward though enthralled and ultimately rejected. Having "tasted" the music, Dorcas finds her life "unbearable" until Joe Trace enters the scene.
To give the details of Violet's family history, the story shifts to the original third-person narrator. One morning back in Violet's childhood, some time after her father had deserted the family, debt collectors repossessed their house and belongings. Violet's mother, Rose Dear, was presented with a "piece of paper" (presumably, an IOU) that her debtor husband had signed, authorizing the repossession. Stupefied, Rose Dear sat the dining table, sipping from an empty cup as the debt collectors emptied the house, took the dining table and slid Rose Dear out of her chair. Rose Dear's mother, True Belle, left her job in Baltimore and arrived to "take charge and over." Four years later, presuming that her children were in good hands, Rose Dear killed herself by jumping into a well. Two weeks after her burial, her husband arrived on the scene with "[chocolate] ingots of goldtwo-dollar piecesand snake oil."
True Belle sends her granddaughters to Palestine, Virginia where an exceptionally large cotton harvest has sparked a labor migration. One night, Violet is sleeping under a tree and she startled by a man who has fallen out of the tree under which she had been sleeping. This is Joe Trace, and his hammock has broken. After the cotton work is over, Violet sends her money home with her sisters and she finds other work in the area, so that she can stay close to Joe. After marrying Joe, Violet had plans to go to Baltimore, having heard years of her grandmother's Baltimore stories. In the end, of course, Joe and Violet decide to take the train to New York, joining a steady migration of black Southerners. Excited though challenged by the rigors of "citylife," the couple decided that they did not want children and Violet's three miscarriages "were more inconvenience than loss." By the time she was forty, however, Violet's "mother-hunger" had become "a panting, unmanageable craving," and her "citylife" began to unravel in chaos.
Joe Trace dates his birth in 1873, and he gives an extensive description of his childhood in Vienna, Virginia, beginning with his life in the home of Rhoda and Frank Williams. The Williams' raised Joe along with six of their own children. While the Williams couple cares for Joe as well as they care for their natural children, they are honest with Joe, informing him that he is not their natural child. When a younger Joe asks Rhoda about his parents she replies, "O honey, they disappeared without a trace." Joe misinterprets the comment and changes his last name after he identifies himself as "the trace'" without which his parents disappeared. Joe identifies "the best man in Vesper County," a man he calls "hunters hunter" as another parental figure in his life as a young orphan.
The narrator begins the chapter intending to understand True Belle's "state of mind when she moved from Baltimore back to Vesper County," to take care of her evicted daughter, Rose Dear, who was purportedly living in an abandoned shack. True Belle was a slave when she left Vesper County for Baltimore, but she was a free woman when she returned in 1888. True Belle convinced her employer (and former master), Vera Louise Gray, that she was dying and wanted to return to Vesper County to live her final days with her family. True Belle lived with Vera Louise Gray in a large house in a sophisticated Baltimore neighborhood. The third occupant, Golden Gray, was Vera's son, named at birth for his radiant golden color. Vera had lived in Vesper County, on the plantation owned by her father, Colonel Wordsworth Gray. In a small community where "nobody could hide much," Vera Louise enjoyed a romantic affair with one of her slaves and after she revealed herself to be pregnant, her parents disowned her. The narrative continues with Golden Gray's journey to Vienna, Virginia to find his father, Henry LesTroy(or Lestory).
Towards the end of his journey by horse and carriage, Golden Gray's concerns that he has lost his way are interrupted by a rustling in the bushes and the startling sight of "a naked berry-black woman." Startled by the presence of Golden Gray's carriage, the woman turns to run away but moves too quickly and without rhythm, banging her head against a tree trunk and falling into unconsciousness. The young man tries to convince himself that the woman was "a vision," but he overcomes his feelings of nausea and approaches the side of the road. The woman is naked, bloody and dirty; she is also extremely pregnant. Wrestling with himself, Golden Gray eventually decides to bring the woman along with him, because the heroic act will be an anecdote. After his sixth hour of travel, Golden Gray arrives at an empty cabin where he decides to rest, suspecting that this is the cabin where his father lives. He sets his trunk on the dirt floor, finds water for his horse and then tends to the woman in carriage, setting her on the bed in the cabin's second bedroom. After surveying the cabin, Golden Gray struggles to set a fire and later gets drunk from the contents of a jug of liquor. A young black boy arrives at the cabin and indicates that Mr. Henry has asked him to tend the animals while he was away.
Henry Lestory (Hunters Hunter, Mr. Henry) is "instantly alarmed" by the presence of Golden Gray and his carriage. Henry views Golden Gray as "a whiteman" and equates his presence with trouble. The father and son do not immediately speak to one another as Henry interrogates the boy, Honor, who explains that the white man has brought the bleeding and pregnant black woman into the cabin. Henry leaves the room and after surveying the cabin and discovering the empty jug of consumed liquor, he curtly asks Golden Gray "Do we know one another?" The impact of the young man's reply, "No. Daddy. We don't." is mitigated by Wild's screams. Honor and Henry assist in the delivery of the child and Honor is sent to inform his mother and the other women of the village, as it is clear that Wild has no intention of nursing her child. The conversation between the father and son is tense and emotionally unrewarding. Henry explains that Vera Louise never informed him of the pregnancy and that "A son ain't what a woman say. A son is what a man do." Golden Gray's sober thoughts are mostly of anger and he considers shooting Henry. Of course, he neither vocalizes nor acts upon the idea.
The narrator then confirms Joe's exodus out of Vienna, after racist's burned the town down. Soon after the fires' onset (they burned for months), Joe returned to the cane field to search for Wild, hoping to communicate with her and confirm that she is his mother. Additionally, Joe is worried that fires may have confused Wild and she could have easily wandered herself into a doomed situation. During one of the childhood trips with Hunters Hunter, Joe joked about hunting the wild woman and interprets Hunter's stoic response: "that woman is somebody's mother and somebody ought to take care," as an intimation that Wild was his mother. Joe takes three journeys to find his mother, traveling into her favorite cane fields and much of the nearby forest.
At the end of the novel, Felice has decided to visit the Traces. She too, has heard Joe Trace sobbing in the windows and she decides to make an effort to cheer him up. Perhaps Joe is crying because Violet has returned the photograph of Dorcas to her aunt, Alice Manfred. Felice makes her visit to the Traces in the middle of her errands. When she enters their apartment, she is carrying the Okeh record and butcher's parcel of meat that her mother requested she bring when returning home.
As Violet is in the kitchen, preparing a catfish dinner for the three of them, Joe speaks expresses his gratitude to Felice and tells her that her visits and kind words are helping them get their lives back together. Felice confesses to Joe that there is more information that she has not given him, a message that Dorcas asked her to relay as she was dying. The message is: "There's only one apple. Just one. Tell Joe." Felice intends to cheer Joe up, telling him that he was the last thing on Dorcas' mind. Still, Joe is more sad than pleased. After the dinner, they hear music "floated inthrough the open window." The Traces start dancing, "funny, like old people do" and they invite Felice to join in, though she declines. Joe sits down when the music ends and says that the apartment needs some birds. Felice adds that a Victrola (record player) would be suitable as well and that she'll being some records to play for them.