The narrator, Tambudzai, Tambu for short, begins her story with a provocative statement: "I was not sorry when my brother died." That happened in the year 1968, and the first chapter sets the context for that event. In anecdotal style, Tambu looks back at the year 1965, when her father, Jeremiah, decided that Nhamo, Tambu's older brother, would go to the mission school and live with Babamukuru, Tambu's uncle. She remembers how her father was always grateful for his brother's generosity, since Babamukuru had educated himself and thus found financial success. Babamukuru and his wife, Maiguru, moved to England with their children, Nyasha and Chido, for five years. Without Babamukuru's support, Tambu's family struggled.
Mr. Matimba, Tambu's teacher, advises her to sell the maize she grows in her garden to the Whites in town. A white couple refuses to buy the corn from a child, saying she should be in school, but give Mr. Matimba a handout instead. Under Mr. Matimba's advice, Tambu gives the money to the school headmaster to keep safe, so that she can use it to pay her school fees for the next few years. Despite her father's protests and attempts to get the money for himself, the headmaster keeps the money and uses it to keep Tambu in school.
When Babamukuru and his family return from England, Nhamo and Jeremiah take the trip to meet them at the airport while Tambu and her mother scramble to find the provisions for a feast. Tambu is suspicious of her cousins Nyasha and Chido because of their "Englishness". She thinks they seem like snobs. After dinner, in a meeting of the family patriarchy, Babamukuru reveals that he is worried about Jeremiah's branch of the family, and insists that Nhamo come to live with him at the mission school so he can be more committed to his studies. After his first year away, Nhamo changes perceptibly. His physical presence has become more anglicized, but he also claims to have forgotten how to speak Shona. The narrative jumps ahead again to 1968, when Babamukuru arrives to report that Nhamo has died of a mysterious illness in a hospital in town. When it is settled that Tambu shall leave for the mission school in his place, her mother becomes thoroughly depressed and cannot eat or work.
Tambu is overwhelmed by the opulence of the mission house. She learns that she is to share a bedroom with her cousin Nyasha. The rebellious Nyasha, however, fights constantly with her parents. In school, Tambu realizes that Nyasha is not liked by her classmates. They think she tries to be "white" and spread rumors about her sexual activity. Tambu becomes fluent in English before long and learns quickly. She also notices how obstinate Nyasha can be and comments how ungrateful she seems toward her parents, who have given her every opportunity.
When Chido is old enough, Babamukuru sends him to Salisbury to attend a mostly white secondary school, and Tambu does not see him very much after that. Meanwhile, Nyasha studies so hard for her Form Two examinations that she starts losing an alarming amount of weight. She does pass, however. When Chido comes back from boarding school for Christmas and he, Tambu, and Nyasha attend a student Christmas party. Andy, one of Tambu's friend Nyaradzo's older brothers, walks home with them. Babamukuru sees Nyasha flirting with Andy and calls her a whore. He attacks his daughter violently and she fights back, while Maiguru pleads with Babamukuru that if he must kill someone to kill her instead. She and Chido pull Babamukuru off Nyasha and hold him so he cannot kill her. For a week after that, Babamukuru stays away from the house and Nyasha retreats into herself. She stops eating again, so Tambu has lunch alone with her aunt. Maiguru confesses the pain she feels when she sees Nyasha and Babamukuru fighting.
Babamukuru, Maiguru, Nyasha, and Tambu return home to the Shona village before Christmas. As they arrive at the homestead, Tambu looks at it with different eyes; now she sees the squalor she used to live in. Lucia, Tambu's youngest aunt on her mother's side, is pregnant with the child of Babamukuru's lazy distant cousin, Takesure. Takesure already has two wives who live elsewhere, so Babamukuru does not approve of him living in the homestead. Netsai reports that, in addition, Tambu's mother is pregnant and has been ill and unable to work for some time. There are twenty-four guests at the homestead for the holiday, and the women have to do unending work in order to take care of all the men and children.
Just after New Years Day, Babamukuru summons a meeting to determine the fate of Takesure, while the women listen at the door. A battle ensues between Lucia and Ma'Shingayi, who believe that Babamukuru is in the wrong to demand that Lucia and Takesure leave. Meanwhile, Maiguru, who claims that since she was not born into this family, it is not her concern, and refuses to stick up for Lucia. Lucia overhears Takesure accusing her of witchcraft to Babamukuru during the counsel meeting, so she storms in and tweaks his ear, defending herself. She threatens to take her sister and leave immediately. Babamukuru suggests that the family's misfortunes are the result of Jeremiah and Ma'Shingayi never being officially married and "living in sin." He decrees that they must have a wedding.
As preparations for the wedding begin, Tambu becomes extremely anxious. When Babamukuru goes back to the mission with Maiguru and Nyasha, he leaves Tambu at the homestead to help with all the work. Ma'Shingayi comes to the mission hospital in March to give birth, and Lucia comes as well to be with her sister. Much to everyone's surprise, Babamukuru finds Lucia a job, cooking food at the girls' hostel. Meanwhile, Nyasha, Maiguru, and Tambu help Ma'Shingayi plan the wedding. The morning of the wedding, Tambu too depressed to get out of bed and tells her uncle that she is sorry, but she does not want to go to the wedding. Babamukuru is furious, of course, but eventually the rest of the family goes to the homestead and Tambu is allowed to stay at the mission. Later, she is punished with fifteen lashes and two weeks of maid's work. Tambu finds pleasure in her punishment, since it is the result of having stood up for herself. Maiguru protests to Babamukuru that Tambu's punishment is too harsh, and finally tells him that she is unhappy living there. Babamukuru reacts by telling her to go wherever she wants. Nyasha predicts that her mother won't leave, but she is wrong: Maiguru leaves by bus the next morning. Five days later, Maiguru returns, much happier and refreshed.
Just before Tambu's Grade Seven examinations, nuns visit the mission school to recruit for a Catholic convent school called Sacred Heart. Tambu is chosen and given a scholarship, but Nyasha thinks she will be brainwashed by the nuns and "fall for their tricks." Babamukuru refuses to let Tambu go at first, but Maiguru persuades him to allow her to attend. Babamukuru takes Tambu back to the homestead for Christmas. Since Maiguru has refused this year to "spend another Christmas catering for a family of two dozen," Babamukuru must drive back and forth between the mission and the homestead for weeks, only sometimes bringing Nyasha and Maiguru with him. When Tambu discusses her new educational opportunity with her mother, Ma'Shingayi becomes visibly depressed. She won't eat or do any work; her baby, Dambudzo, develops diarrhea and she is unable to take care of him. Jeremiah sends for Lucia, who comes and forces her sister to get up, bathe, eat meat stew, and take care of her baby.
Back at the mission, Tambu's old friends, Maidei and Jocelyn, are no longer kind to her. They clearly resent that she is leaving them to go to a "white" convent school. When it is time to go to Sacred Heart, Babamukuru, Maiguru, and Nyasha all drive Tambu to the convent. The building and grounds are impossibly beautiful and well groomed, but it is clear that "the Africans" have poorer living quarters, segregated from the white students. As the semester progresses, Tambu throws herself into her studies intently. She does not keep in good touch with Nyasha, though Nyasha writes her many letters. One letter in particular is revealing and emotional; she is not getting along with the girls at school or with her father.
When Tambu returns to the mission, she notices a definite change in Nyasha, who has "grown skeletal." Tambu observes her cousin shovel her dinner into her mouth, then retreat to the bathroom to throw it up. While Babamukuru wants Tambu to return to the convent the very next day, she feels she cannot leave her cousin in this state. She is right; that evening, Nyasha flies into a suicidal rage, yelling, "They've trapped us" and injuring herself with anything she can get her hands on. Finally, Babamukuru takes Nyasha to a psychiatrist, who recognizes that she needs to be put in a clinic for several weeks for observation and recovery. While she is there, Babamukuru takes Tambu back to the homestead, where Ma'Shingayi is adamant that Nyasha is being killed by her "Englishness," and warns Tambu to watch out for it. Tambu tries to banish her mother's suspicion, but looking back, she acknowledges that the warning stayed with her and that "quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when I can set down this story."