Winfield Evan Stark’s body is missing from his grave. In its place is a book, written by S. Oscar, an account of her strange and wonderful childhood.
S. Oscar, otherwise known as Oz, is the narrator of this unusual and mystical tale, and tells the story of her upbringing with a mother and father and sister who are all dead. Growing up with a family of corpses leads to certain limitations for our protagonist. In her early life she lacks the opportunity to learn about and experience feelings and emotions. Oz's first experiences of emotional attachment come from her pet pony, Penny, and her dog, Chimpy. Only late, watching a series of soap operas, does she begin to see emotions and feeling and learn to put names to them.
Oz discovers that her family is dead shortly after her parents have taken up fundamentalist religion. This is also how she meets and befriends their neighbor, Winfield Evan Stark. Stark is a self-proclaimed agnostic since the protracted illness and eventual death of his wife and daughter from cancer. Despite the young Oz’s cajoling and protestations, Stark refuses to attend church with her. It is only years later, when her father’s mangled body is found in a car wreck, that Oz's mother and sister are revealed in their true state of death and decay to all the neighbors. Thus ends the story of her upbringing by corpses. It is this story which has been found in Stark’s empty coffin.
Oz has returned to Kansas to tell the rest of her life story, which comprises the rest of the novel. She goes on to tell how, on his deathbed, Stark had pleaded with her to write an account of her experience with corpses, to warn people of what awaits them, but Oz adamantly refuses. As a final compromise, she agrees to tell the story only if he sends her a message from the grave to show that revealing the truth is the right thing to do. He agrees and fulfills his promise. The presence of the book in his coffin signifies to Oz that she must tell the rest of her story and this she proceeds to do.
The story begins with her new life after her parents' deaths, living with the Branscome family, and the revelation that she is not after all a boy. During her years there she gains emotional experience, learning fear, gratitude, revulsion and the language to describe them. At sixteen, after a terminated pregnancy, Mr. Stark shows up in her life once more to take her away from the Branscomes and enrolls her at a university. It is there that she realizes “..there are more corpses in academia than anywhere you might name.” At university she meets Professor Jeanne Napoleon, who has a profound effect on her intellectual and emotional development. Oz gives accounts of her friends and acquaintances who meet untimely ends from lack of love and unwillingness to leave behind a world of theory and reason.
This novel is an intriguing philosophical exploration of emotional and spiritual death-in-life. Dunbar allows the reader a glimpse of the shadow of mortality that hangs over us all and reveals that we are not merely the sum of all our thoughts, but that we are complex assemblages of experiences and social interaction. Dunbar uses a unique blend of reality and imagination.