Njoroge, a young boy, is urged to attend school by his mother. He is the first one of his family able to go to school. His family lives on the land of Jacobo, an African made rich by his dealings with white settlers, namely Mr. Howlands, the most powerful land owner in the area. Njoroge's brother Kamau works as an apprentice to a carpenter, while Boro, the eldest living son, is troubled by his experiences while in forced service during World War II, including witnessing the death of his elder brother. Ngotho, Njoroge's father and a respected man in the surrounding area, tends Mr. Howlands' crops, but is motivated by his passion to preserve his ancestral land, rather than for any compensation or loyalty.
One day, black workers call for a strike to obtain higher wages. Ngotho is ambivalent about participating in the strike because he fears he will lose his job. However, he decides to go to the gathering, even though his two wives do not agree. At the demonstration, there are calls for higher wages. Suddenly, the white police inspector brings Jacobo to the gathering to pacify the native people. Jacobo tries to end to the strike. Ngotho attacks Jacobo, and the result is a riot where two people are killed. Jacobo survives and swears revenge. Ngotho loses his job and Njoroge’s family is forced to move. Njoroge’s brothers fund his education and seem to lose respect for their father.
Mwihaki, Jacobo's daughter and Njoroge's best friend, enters a girls' only boarding school, leaving Njoroge relatively alone. He reflects upon her leaving, and realizes that he was embarrassed by his father's actions towards Jacobo. For this reason, Njoroge is not upset by her exit and their separation. Njoroge switches to another school.
For a time, everyone's attention is focused on the upcoming trial of Jomo Kenyatta – a revered leader of the movement. Many blacks think that he is going to bring forth Kenya’s independence. But Jomo loses the trial and is imprisoned. This results in further protests and greater suppression of the black population.
Jacobo and a white landowner, Mr. Howlands, fight against the rising activities of the Mau Mau, an organization striving for Kenyan economic, political, and cultural independence. Jacobo accuses Ngotho of being the leader of the Mau Mau and tries to imprison the whole family. Meanwhile, the situation in the country is deteriorating. Six black men are taken out of their houses and executed in the woods.
One day Njoroge meets Mwihaki again, who has returned from boarding school. Although Njoroge had planned to avoid her due to the conflict between their fathers, their friendship is unaffected. Njoroge passes an important exam that allows him to advance to High School. His village is proud of him, and collects money to pay Njoroge's High School tuition.
Several months later, Jacobo is murdered in his office by a member of the Mau Mau. Mr. Howlands has Njoroge removed from school for questioning. Both father and son are brutally beaten before release and Ngotho is left barely alive. Although there doesn't seem to be a connection between Njoroge's family and the murder, it is eventually revealed that Njoroge's brothers are behind the assassination, and that Boro, is the real leader of the Mau Mau. Ngotho soon dies from his injuries and Njoroge finds out that his father was protecting his brothers. Kamau has been imprisoned for life. Only Njoroge and his two mothers remain free, and Njoroge is left as the sole provider of his two mothers. Njoroge fears that he cannot make ends meet; he gives up hope of continuing in school and loses faith in God.
Njoroge asks for Mwihaki's support, but she is angry because of her father’s death. When he finally pledges his love to her, she refuses to leave with him, realizing her obligation to Kenya and her mother. Njoroge decides to leave town and makes a take his own life attempt; however, he fails when his mothers find him before he is able to hang himself . The novel closes with Njoroge feeling hopeless, and ashamed of cowardice.