I’m not entirely certain what to call this. It isn’t an epistolary novel. Rather, it takes the form of a rough draft of a memoir written by two different people over the course of several years. The chapters are presented chronologically, but they weren’t written so. There are jumps in the narrative, and confusing parts where you’re just dropped into the middle of a scene and have to muddle out what’s going on.
Jesse begins with a description of his early childhood in Labrador, which was very harsh. As a teenager, penniless and with both his parents dead, he makes the acquaintance of a man named Durham. Durham claims to be a fabulously wealthy nobleman. He’s neither, of course, but he leads naive Jesse out west to Arizona to be a cowboy and introduces him to alcohol. He also introduces him to Polly, a prostitute who marries him as a joke, but Jesse doesn’t understand that. When she tires of his jealousy, she fakes suicide and Jesse flees north to British Columbia.
Kate is an opera singer and is married to another opera singer who’s lost his voice. They’re in Canada for a rest cure, but far from being cured, Trevor has gone quite insane. He drowns while attempting to murder her. Jesse takes her in and the two fall in love. They’re married and have a son, David (the Biblical Jesse of course being David’s father — there’s a David and Goliath allegory running through the book, too).
Enter once more Durham, now calling himself Brooke. He’s a cattle rustler looking to hide his stolen herd at Jesse’s ranch, which he thought was abandoned. Exactly how it happened is confused, but the gang is caught and extradited back to the US. Brooke alone saves himself from the noose by turning state’s evidence against his compatriots. To revenge himself, he brings Polly back from the dead to break apart Jesse’s marriage.
Brooke effectively brings ruin to the entire community and Polly spirals into alcoholism. When the community rallies and begins pushing back against them, things turn violent. A fight breaks out. Polly is badly wounded but ultimately kills Brooke. Afterward, she shoots herself.