In 1985, young King "Howard" Kashpaw, Jr. lives with his parents in an unstable home. He hears them talking about someone busting out of jail and weighing what that will mean for them. His parents, King and Lynette, are screaming at each other. Howard has taught himself to read by watching Sesame Street and was placed in first grade when he was only old enough for kindergarten. In school, he decided that he wanted to be called Howard rather than King. Back at home, Howard worries that the police are coming for his father.
Lipsha Morrissey narrates the rest of the chapter in the first person. Lipsha has signed up for the army and is regretting that he has done so. Lipsha reveals that Lulu told him who his mother was at the Senior Citizens. She beckoned him to her room one day, and informed him of his relation to June. Lipsha was vaguely afraid of Lulu -- he had heard that she came back with special powers of knowledge after her eye surgery -- but entered anyway when she grabbed him.
Lulu told Lipsha that twenty years ago, her son Gerry told her that he was in love with June, though he failed to mention that she was already married to Gordie and had had a child with him. Together, Gerry and June conceived Lipsha; not long after the birth, June went back to Gordie and gave their child to Marie to raise. Lulu further told Lipsha that the whole family has long known the identity of his real mother and that she didn't want him to be ignorant any more. Lulu said there was no truth to the rumors that his mother tried to "sling him in the marsh," and that she was just upset about her infidelity. Marie, for her part, took Lipsha in out of her love for June.
Lipsha has thus been confused about his feelings, especially because he had thought of Marie as his mother. Marie has told him where she hides her money, perhaps as a way of offering him escape into a new life. One day, Lipsha does steal money and rides the bus to a border town, where he stays in a hotel and drinks. One day he signs up for the army. He realizes he's made a huge mistake and, overcome with fear, says he wants to meet his father. While drinking with an old Sioux veteran, Lipsha has a vision of Gerry breaking out of prison. Shortly thereafter, Lipsha shows up in the Twin Cities and stays with King (whom he now knows to be his brother) and Lynette. He sees the sad alcoholism and neglect in their lives, and observes the reactions of their precocious son Howard.
One night around dinner-time (which for Howard and Lipsha consists of cereal, King and Lynette nothing), King and Lipsha have an important conversation. While the two men play poker, Lipsha asks King to tell him more about Gerry, since the two spent time together in Stillwater prison. King seems uncomfortable with the conversation. A news report announces that Gerry Nanapush has broken out of prison. Hours later, Gerry shows up in their apartment by scaling the building.
Now arrived at King’s apartment, Gerry announces that King was an informer in jail and got himself out by turning in Gerry's escape plan. The men play cards for June's car. Lipsha notices that Gerry marks the cards the same way his mother Lulu does, the same way she taught Lipsha to. By cheating at cards while dealing, Lipsha deals himself a winning hand and wins the car keys. Lipsha says he will drive Gerry anywhere he wants to go. Yet sudden knock at the door indicates that the police are present. Howard runs to the door, telling him that his father King is inside. The police realize that Gerry is not there -- he managed to escape quickly -- and apologize for intruding. Lipsha thinks how sad it is that Howard has tried to turn his father in. He grabs the keys and leaves.
While driving, Lipsha hears hammering from the trunk. He finally stops the car to figure out what is wrong and he discovers Gerry, hidden in the trunk and about to die from suffocation. Lipsha drives him up toward the Canada border, and, during the drive, asks Gerry about his relationship with June. Gerry talks about how beautiful she was. Lipsha asks Gerry if he really killed the trooper, the crime he is in jail for, but does not reveal the answer to the reader.
Lipsha reveals to Gerry that he is running away from the army. Gerry says that Lipsha shouldn't worry about the army, and reveals that he knows Lipsha is his son by saying that his own genetic heart defect kept him out of the army. "You're a Nanapush man," he says. "We all have this odd thing with our hearts."
Once Gerry is gone, Lipsha drives home with his headlights off, until he reaches the highway. He looks at the deep river that signals the beginning of the reservation and thinks about his mother June. He realizes that by not raising him, she helped him end up much better off than King; looking back, he feels lucky to have been raised by Marie, and knows that June will always be in his heart. Lipsha remembers hearing that the river is the last remnant of an ancient ocean that covered the Dakotas and "solved all our problems." Yet now he is ready to face the world head on, saying "the truth is we live on dry land."
In the long final chapter of the novel, Erdrich focuses on the youngest generation of her important characters: little King Junior (now Howard), who is struggling to understand the world around him while surviving in a dysfunctional home, and Lipsha Morrissey, who at only nineteen years-old still has a lot to learn about the world, including the truth about his family heritage. Howard could be a young Lipsha, with his curiosity and innate intelligence. Yet Erdrich's description of the broken home Howard lives in paints a bleak picture of his future prospects. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Howard's response to police at the door: he runs to them, yelling that his father is inside.
Though Howard, unlike Lipsha, grew up with his biological parents, Erdrich demonstrates that it is not only blood that makes good parents. Lipsha spends the chapter in search of the truth about his birth mother June and his father Gerry, people who had no hand in raising him but to whom he feels a connection. The reader can feel sympathy for Lipsha in his quest, but Erdrich's adroit comparison of his parentage to Howard's demonstrates that a loving home, far more than birth parents, positively shapes a child into who he will be. Lipsha's devotion to Marie makes this clear.
Erdrich situates the reader in the story during the last part of the chapter, when Gerry and Lipsha talk in the car. Lipsha asks Gerry to tell him whether or not he killed the trooper; though Gerry reveals the truth, Lipsha says that he cannot tell the reader. This element of hyperrealism at the end of the novel shows how the reader, in purposefully interpreting and reacting to the events of the narrative, has also been a player in the story. Lipsha's genuine concern that the reader might reveal the truth makes the entire novel seem even more realistic than it already has. Such withholdings and ambiguities, after all, are fundamental to everyday interactions.
The chapter ends with a final scene of ocean imagery. After Lipsha has helped his father escape, he drives back to the reservation and stops on the bridge that spans the river that marks the edge of the reservation. "I'd heard that this river was the last of an ancient ocean, miles deep, that once had covered the Dakotas and solved all our problems," Lipsha muses. "It was easy to still imagine us beneath them vast unreasonable waves, but the truth is we live on dry land. I got inside." Water has meant many things throughout the novel, mainly used as a symbol of death and religion, but in this final quote Lipsha realizes that he needs to live in the present. As the most mystical and esoterically-inclined of the book's characters, he offers a significant parting thought. He has the power of medicine but will not live in the world of imagination. While Howard's broken life could point to a bleak future for the next generation, Lipsha's pragmatic realism and intelligent observations herald a brighter future.