You can take the girl away from the craziness, but you can't take the craziness out of the girl. Such is the basic dilemma when Amaranth uses the chaos of a fire in a commune to snatch her two daughters and drive as far and fast as she can in another direction. Clothed in the archaic costumes of a Messianic end-of-times cult, long skirts, bound breasts and caps covering untrimmed tresses, the strangers do not stop until Amaranth falls asleep at the wheel somewhere in the Oklahoma panhandle, crashing the car into a tree. Stumbling from the wreck, the three weary travelers stagger toward the only light they can see, a gas station located on a farm belonging to a man named Bradley.
Bradley isn't pleased by the sight of these intruders (especially dressed as they are) but allows them to settle on the porch of his weathered farmhouse until the state of their vehicle can be determined. The visitors are, in effect, marooned on the farm and dependent upon Bradley's generosity until Amaranth can determine the best plan for the future. Since the vehicle is totaled and Bradley is in the middle of planting crops, the women remain on the porch as the farm work proceeds, Amaranth sneaking into the farmhouse in search of food for her hungry girls. Unlike their days on the commune, the girls do nothing to contribute to the farm, Sorrow crying over a traumatic loss she suffered soon after the crash, Amity tethered to her sister's arm, a binding that was intended to stop Sorrow from running away.
The real meat of Riley's novel is found in the differences between life on the farm and memories of the commune, where Amaranth is first wife and part of her husband's original vision to give every stray woman a home in a self-contained rural community, where all would work and pray together preparing for the end of times. Every year he leaves for a while, returning with more women, more wives. The current number stands at fifty, children with many mothers, everyone sharing; Zacharias is husband/father to all, the undisputed leader. But what seemed so perfect at first has fallen apart over time. Her husband's preoccupations and unnatural desires pollute the purity of their vision, and the world intrudes in ugly ways that foster disharmony and panic, like the fire that allowed Amaranth the time to flee.
As Amaranth grows more attached to Bradley and the farm, Sorrow silently seethes, preparing secretly to flee with the help of the farmhand who has befriended Amity. Honored as the cult's oracle who interprets God's signs for her father, Sorrow yearns to return to him and will not be placated by a mother who has lost her place. Never having been told no, Sorrow will not be denied, her rage growing with each day away from her father. In contrast, Riley captures a child poised on the edge of learning, challenged by an old man she fears is Satan masquerading as human, breaking the taboo of walking into a field, entering another man's house and speaking to a boy not much older than herself who explains life on the farm. Even Amaranth has finally softened Bradley's heart, inspired him to imagine a woman in his life again, imagined herself freed of Zacharias and his obsessions.
Only Amity intuits her sister's intent, Amity who is bound to Sorrow far more deeply than any piece of cloth, Amity who fears her sister but is helpless to deny her, who understands Amaranth will not act to stop the monster she has created. It all goes up in flames and disaster, the small progress toward normalcy destroyed by one raised to worship endings, not beginnings. But Sorrow will wreak God's wrath—and her own—on those who stand in her way, seduced by the passion of fanaticism regardless of all that is forfeit in the process in this sometimes harrowing, always engaging novel.