The story centers on the Stamper family, a hard-headed logging clan in the fictional town of Wakonda, Oregon, in the early 1960s. The union loggers in the town of Wakonda go on strike in demand of the same pay for shorter hours in response to the decreasing need for labor. The Stamper family, however, owns and operates a small family company without unions and decides to continue work as well as supply the regionally owned mill with all the timber the laborers would have supplied had the strike not occurred.
This decision, and the surrounding details of the decision, are deeply explored in this multilayered historical background and relationship study, especially in its examination of the members of the Stamper Family: Henry Stamper, the old, politically and socially conservative and half-crazed patriarch whose motto "Never Give a Inch!" has defined the nature of the family and its dynamic with the town; Hank, the older son of Henry whose strong will and personality make him a leader but whose subtle insecurities and desires threaten the stability of his family; Leland, the younger son of Henry and half brother of Hank, whose constant weaknesses and the nature of his intellect led him away from the family to the East Coast, but whose eccentric behavior and desire for revenge against Hank lead him back to Oregon when his mother dies; and Viv, whose love for her husband Hank fades as she realizes her subordinate place in the Stamper household.
The family house itself manifests the physical stubbornness of the Stamper family; as the nearby river widens slowly and causes erosion, all the other houses on the river have either been consumed or wrecked by the waters or moved away from the current, except the Stamper house, which stands on a precarious peninsula struggling to maintain every inch of land with the help of an arsenal of boards, sand bags, cables, and other miscellaneous items brandished by Henry Stamper in his fight against the encroaching river.