The novel is set in a small religious Mennonite town called East Village, generally considered to be a fictionalized version of Toews' hometown of Steinbach, Manitoba. The narrator is Nomi Nickel, a curious, defiant, sardonic 16-year-old who dreams of hanging out with Lou Reed in the "real" East Village of New York City. She lives alone with her doleful father, Ray Nickel, who is a dutiful member of the town church. Nomi, on the other hand, is inquisitive by nature and her compulsive questioning brings her into conflict with the town's various authorities, most notably Hans Rosenfeldt, the sanctimonious church pastor.
As the story unfolds, it is revealed that Nomi's irreverent older sister Tash left town three years earlier with her boyfriend, Ian, and that Nomi's mother, Trudie, also left, though under more mysterious circumstances. Nomi is fiercely loyal to her father, and she comes to decide that she must stay in East Village for his sake.
Nomi senses that when she graduates from high school, all she'll be expected to do is work at the chicken processing plant and marry a boy from the community and become "good." She develops a relationship with Travis, who in the end is not the person he appears to be. She visits her good friend Lydia in the hospital, where she gets into confrontations with hospital staff. At school, she is met with obfuscation and anger by Mr. Quiring and other teachers and administrators. When Nomi lashes out in action or outrage, she is ignored or negated. Nomi's tragedy is the slow realization that not only will she fail to bring her family together, but she will also have to change her nature to find a place in the town she loves. In the end, her father Ray makes a heroic sacrifice so that she can be free.