Exposition (Initial Situation)
The book opens with the final hours of June Kashpaw, who's wandering around Williston, North Dakota, waiting for a bus home. However, instead of making her bus, she ends up having a big time out on the town with some guy she met in a bar. After he falls asleep during a brief and unsuccessful sexual encounter in his truck, she decides to just walk home.
Rising Action (Conflict, Complication)
Just One Big, Confusing Family
Unfortunately, we soon learn that June never made it home, and she left a big old mess behind her. Her son King is clearly in bad shape, and he seems to abuse both alcohol and his wife, Lynette, in equal measure. She also leaves behind Lipsha, a son who doesn't know he's her son—he just knows he was abandoned. Oh, and then there's Nector Kashpaw, whose family took June in when her mother died—when we meet him, he's addled from dementia/Alzheimer's. All in all, things appear to be pretty rough in the family June left behind.
We get a lot of these details through the first-person perspective of Albertine Johnson, who left the reservation to go to school but still comes back from time to time.
The story then goes way back in time to the 1930s, to the day Nector and Marie met, and then traces the family's backstory. It seems that Nector had previously been pretty hot-and-heavy interested in someone named Lulu Lamartine (née Nanapush) before Marie came into his life. He ended up marrying Marie, though.
We get some details about Lulu Lamartine as well, including intel on how she ended up with nine kids from a wide range of fathers. We also learn more about Nector and June.
Climax (Crisis, Turning Point)
Love Hurts… Or Rather, Burns
After several pages of Nector being a supporting or background character, he takes center stage midway through the novel with a chapter that gives us a whole lot of detail about his backstory, his motivations, and (most importantly) how he ended up hooking up with Lulu Lamartine for five years from 1952-1957 while still married to Marie.
Unfortunately, that romance ends poorly, with Nector finally deciding to leave Marie for Lulu—only to accidentally set her house on fire when he doesn't find Lulu at home when he goes to declare his love. That little incident almost kills Lyman (their son together), and does result in Lulu losing all her hair. So, Lulu marries Beverly (her former brother-in-law), and Nector goes back to Marie.
The story then continues hopping among the characters' sad tales (but consistently moving forward in time), checking in with Albertine, Henry Lamartine Junior, and Lyman Lamartine to show us their situation through the 1970s.
Of particular note: Albertine and Henry Junior meet during that time and end up in bed together. During this encounter, Henry Junior suffers from hallucinations and ends up totally freaking out—you see, he's suffering from some serious PTSD after his tour in Vietnam. The year after their tryst, he dies after jumping into the river. It's left ambiguous, but it seems that the death is a suicide.
We also learn about what happened to Gerry Nanapush, Lulu's son with Moses Pillager. He marries a woman named Dot and is expecting a child, but he is also on the run from the law. As a result, he doesn't end up being with his wife when their daughter, Shawn, is born. In fact, during one of his escapes, he actually ends up in even more trouble because he is accused of shooting a state trooper.
Finally, we learn about the intense depression and substance addiction(s) that Gordie, June's husband, struggles with after her death. Apparently he is so badly off that he steals Lysol from his mother and used it to get high when alcohol wasn't available. He also appears so addled from his alcohol use that, during one of his tours driving drunk, he believes he has hit June (when he had actually hit a deer).
Happily Ever After… Well, Kind of
There's still more pain and sadness for the characters in this section, but ultimately at least a few characters seem to find peace with their past and find a path forward. Nector dies in a freak accident (as a result of Marie and Lipsha's combined efforts to give him some "love medicine" to get him away from Lulu Lamartine), but then Lulu and Marie Kashpaw become friends and even comfort each other about Nector's loss. So, that's nice, even if it's a little unconventional, right?
Then there's poor Lipsha, who has gone through most of his life without knowing his biological parents. Lulu clues him into the fact that June and Gerry were his biological parents, and June had given him up for his own good. With that knowledge in hand, and after initially being peeved to be the last person to know this, Lipsha makes peace with his feelings about his mother, finally understands why King (his half-brother) is so nasty to him, and decides that he wants to see his father.
Unfortunately, his father is in prison, so Lipsha is afraid that might be difficult—until his sixth sense tells him that Gerry will be busting out of prison soon. And sure enough, he does, and they end up meeting in King's apartment. Lipsha wins King's car from him in a poker game, and he uses it to give Gerry a ride to the Canadian border.