In the mid-19th century, Father Gstir is sent from Bavaria to Canada to minister to German-Catholic communities. He is drawn to Shoneval, a farming town situated in a valley in Ontario, and is determined to build a stone church with a bell. Joseph Becker, a master woodcarver, helps him.
Later, Becker tries to pass on his carving skills to his grandson, Tilman, but the boy is unenthusiastic. Tilman suffers from constant restlessness and is unable to stay in one place, often running away from the settlement for weeks at a time. Aged 12 he leaves for good. Becker's granddaughter, Klara, by contrast, is eager to learn the carving trade and Becker reluctantly teaches her.
Klara falls in love with Eamon, the silent son of an Irish family, but she is hurt when he leaves her to fight in World War I. After he is reported as 'missing' Klara is devastated, and attempts to shut out her memory of him and her emotions, and lives the life of a spinster.
After leaving home, Tilman spends several years as a hobo on the roads and rails. He eventually meets up with a tramp named Refuto, who had left home because he felt guilty for indirectly killing his brother. Later, Refuto decides to try returning home, fearful that his family will not forgive his wrongs. Refuto brings Tilman with him to the Italian district of Hamilton; Tilman befriends Refuto's son Giorgio and lives with the family for a time. But when war comes Tilman serves in the trenches of France, where he is 'injured out' after losing his leg in battle at Vimy Ridge.
Aged in his 40s, Tilman returns to Shoneval, and Klara is reunited with the brother who had been assumed dead years ago.
She becomes determined to travel to France with Tilman to help carve the massive Vimy Memorial being built by Walter Allward. After overcoming her brother's reluctance they travel to France and start work on the monument, Klara disguised as a man.
After some weeks, and without permission, Klara sculpts Eamon's face on a key statue on the top of the memorial. Despite his initial anger, Allward sees how the change personalises and enhances the monument. He retains the alteration.
Klara falls in love with Giorgio, who is also working on the monument, and for the first time since Eamon's death she opens up her emotions. Tilman also opens himself up to physical intimacy for the first time, with a male war-wounded French chef.
The novel ends with the imposing memorial completed, Allward all but forgotten, and Klara and Tilman now leading emotionally fulfilling lives with their partners in Canada, having memorialised the people they knew who had been taken by the war.