The novel begins at the end of World War I with Fidelis Waldvogel, a German sniper, returning to his hometown in defeated Germany from the battle lines. Fidelis seeks out Eva Kalb, the pregnant fiancée of his dear friend, Johannes, and informs her that her fiancé has died in the war. He tells Eva of his promise to Johannes, which is that he would marry and take care of her. She agrees, and soon the two are wed.
Fidelis, a butcher by trade, leaves Germany by himself to emigrate to the United States in order to escape the immense poverty brought on by the war. He plans to travel to Seattle to set up a new life for his family, paying his way by selling German sausages. However his funds and sausages run out in Argus, North Dakota. Fidelis first works for the local butcher and then sets up his own butcher shop in Argus. He works hard until he can finally send for his wife, Eva, and her child, Franz.
Delphine Watzka is the daughter of Roy Watzka, the town drunk, who grew up in Argus, North Dakota. Delphine never met her mother and leaves the town to become a vaudeville performer. Delphine meets and becomes attached to Cyprian, a World War I veteran. The two make money from an act where Delphine performs as a table upon which Cyprian balances. One day, after a performance, Delphine discovers Cyprian engaging in a sexual act with a man. This discovery changes their relationship, but the two remain together, posing as a married couple.
The two return to Argus, where they stop to see Delphine's severely alcoholic father. There is an overpowering stench in Roy’s house, and in the process of cleaning the dwelling, Delphine and Cyprian discover the corpses of three people – two adults and one child – rotting in her father’s cellar. The three corpses are later revealed as the remains of the Chavers family.
While attempting to unravel the mystery of the bodies in the cellar, as well as to eradicate the odor from the house, Delphine meets Eva. The two quickly become friends; Eva takes Delphine under her wing, allowing Delphine to work in the butcher shop, and mentoring her in many of the domestic skills Delphine had never learned.
Eva learns that she has cancer, and despite medical treatments and Delphine’s nursing, her health deteriorates. Eva’s sister-in-law Tante ("aunt” in German) Maria Theresa arrives to assist the family with the various means of daily life. Tante and Delphine take an instant dislike to each other. During Eva’s painful final days, Tante destroys the morphine prescribed to assist her out of shame towards Eva’s dependency on the drug. In one of the most gripping sections of the novel, Delphine tries to find a doctor and pharmacist while Eva's pain becomes uncontrollable. Finally, Roy breaks into the pharmacy and obtains the morphine that Eva desperately needs.
Soon after, Eva dies. Her death leads to the sobering of Roy, as she was one of the few people that was actually nice to him. Additionally, Delphine vows to raise Eva’s four boys and to assist Fidelis.
Meanwhile, Albert Hock, town sheriff, has been investigating the Chavers case. Beads from Clarisse's dress that were embedded in the floor over the cellar becomes the means by which Hock attempts to blackmail Clarisse into becoming involved with him. She stabs the sheriff to death and flees to the Twin Cities.
Tante and Cyprian both leave Argus. Tante returns to Germany with Erich and Emil. Cyprian returns to the life of the traveling performer. Both departures pave the way for a romance between Delphine and Fidelis, which eventually results in marriage.
Roy Watzka dies, but not before revealing the truth behind the deaths of the Chavers family. They were left in the cellar as retribution towards Porky Chavers, the father, singing over Roy in Fidelis' singing club. Roy did not intend for them to die, but due to the after-effect of an alcohol-induced binge, he forgot they were in the basement.
At the outbreak of World War II, Fidelis finds his family once again ravaged by war. His sons Franz and Markus both enlist in the United States Army, whereas his twin sons, Erich and Emil, enlist in the German military. Emil is quickly killed in the war, and his twin Erich is eventually captured by U.S. soldiers. He is transferred to a POW camp in the U.S. After Markus finds this out, he takes Fidelis there but Erich refuses to speak to either of them. Franz as well, on the American side, is gravely injured in an airplane accident, which eventually results in his death.
On a post-war trip to Germany, at which Delphine and Fidelis attend an unveiling of a memorial to the bombing of Fidelis' home town, Fidelis falls ill. He dies on their return trip to Argus.
The novel concludes with the revelation of Delphine’s true heritage, as told by the town scrap collector, Step-and-a-Half. Delphine was the biological daughter of Mrs. Shimek (Mazarine's mother). She had been abandoned when she was born and found in an outhouse by Step-and-a-Half. Step-and-a-Half gave her to Roy to raise.