When American pioneers set their hearts on a California valley where Indians had been living for thousands of years, a period of uneasy appraisal emerged, followed by conflict and soon enough by genocide. The epic greed and violence of the 1850's and 60's have been brushed aside by history, conveniently forgotten in the pride of conquest. Willful ignorance and cruelty, terror and desperation were common in that gruesome time, but there were moments too of nobility and compassion, ingenuity and forgiveness, qualities which might have prevailed if certain things had been different, the same qualities that offer hope for conflict resolution today.
The principal narrator is Mellie, a young White woman who has lived among Mission Indians further south and is inclined to think of the Indians as neighbors. Other voices are heard as well: Mellie's husband, Law, who raises cattle and thinks the Indians should be left alone; Sam and Jakob Brandt, one brother alert to local politics and Civil War sympathies, the other distressed to find the Indians killing their own dogs to feed their hungry children; Jeff Thrush, a hard-bitten rancher who won't be crowded off his land by big-money interests and favors Indian extermination; Mellie's Father, a disappointed doctor toiling among miners and Indians in Gold Rush country; Bahé, an Indian woman amazed at the ignorance of the newcomers, who watches as sickness strikes deep, as fish and deer and acorns become harder and harder to get, and who must survive and find a way for the essential spirit to go on.