June Kashpaw, who apparently has had kind of a rough life anyway, goes on a drunken tear with a stranger and ends up dying while walking home in the middle of a storm. Her family (and particularly her son King) has trouble dealing with her death.
The book quickly retreats from this opening trauma, though, and takes us back in time to the beginnings of this branch of the Kashpaws. We learn how Nector and Marie met and ended up together, despite the fact that Nector initially had had his eye on Lulu Lamartine. Some bad stuff happens during this section of the book (for example, Marie was being tortured by a nun before she escaped and met Nector on her way down the hill), but you do get the sense that youth is a time of relative promise for Marie and Nector.
However, as the book progresses, we realize that the characters are trapped by a variety of problems and afflictions that include alcohol addiction, money troubles, and lovey-dovey feelings for non-spouses. In a chapter midway through, Nector realizes that life just kind of passed him by while he was working hard trying to support his children (and all the children that Marie took in), and suddenly he feels old and stuck and can't quite wrap his head around how he got there. So, he starts hankering after Lulu Lamartine again.
Nector starts an affair with Lulu Lamartine, which produces Lyman Lamartine. Nector ultimately decides that he wants to leave Marie for Lulu… but when he goes to tell her that and can't find her, he is so distraught and distracted by the hugeness of what he's doing (and inability to pull it off) that he accidentally sets a fire that destroys Lulu's house and almost kills Lyman. Lulu loses all her hair busting into the house to get her their son.
Nector ends up returning to Marie, who totally ignored the "Dear John" letter Nector had left for her. Then eventually, Nector starts losing his memory, which creates a lot of challenges and heartache for the fam.
Oh, and then after June dies (yup, we've caught back up to the present by this point), Gordie has a really rough time, spending a good portion of his time in a drunken stupor (and, when he can't find alcohol, even resorting to ingesting Lysol). His mother is so worried about him on one occasion that she guards the door to his bedroom with an ax, ostensibly to prevent him from doing himself—or anyone else—any further harm.
And finally: Gerry Kashpaw, Lulu Lamartine's son (and father of June's son Lipsha), ends up back in prison—this time with consecutive life sentences—for killing a state trooper. That all sounds pretty nightmarish to us…
Believe it or not, this long sting of unfortunate, no-good events actually ends on a somewhat happy note. Right around the time Lipsha finds out who his parents are (he was the last person in the Kashpaw/Lamartine/Nanapush families to find out, apparently), his father, Gerry, escapes from prison. Even better, the two men end up at King Kashpaw's apartment in the Twin Cities together playing cards.
After Lipsha wins King's car off of him (by cheating at poker), he drives Gerry toward the Canadian border so he can escape. They have a nice ride together, and Lipsha seems to feel more at peace about his family sitch than he has for the entire book. At the end, he's ready to bring the car King bought with June's insurance money—which kind of makes it "her" car—back home to the reservation. The idea of bringing the car home seems to have significance for him on the heels of discovering that June was his mother, and it seems that he literally thinks of it as bringing her home, finally.
Oh, and if you hadn't noticed it already, there's a lot of talk about resurrection and Jesus in the book, most of which is associated with June—and that seems important in thinking about this as a story as one of rebirth, right?
For example at the end of the very first chapter (which is set on Easter weekend), June is described as walking over snow "like water" (um, newsflash, it is water) on her way home, which reminds us more than a little of Jesus.
Then, there are sections called "Resurrection" and "Crown of Thorns," which, while technically about Gordie, are really about how June's death affects him, and how her ghostly presence is still kind of around. So, again, Erdrich always has us thinking about rebirth as we move through the chapters.
So, yeah, Booker's "Rebirth" scheme really nails it here.