It is 1939, with the world on the verge of global war, when Constable Hotchkiss confronts the spoiled, narcissistic man-child Ernie Sickert about a number of disturbing pranks in their small prairie town. Angry and cornered, Ernie commits an act of unspeakable violence, putting in motion a course of events that will permanently change the lives of all in his wake. With Loretta Pipe--the twelve-year-old he idealizes as the love of his life--in tow, Ernie flees town. In close pursuit is Corporal Cooper, who enlists the aid of two brothers, veterans of World War One: Jack, a sensitive, spiritual man with a potential for brutal violence; and angry, impetuous Dill, still recovering from the premature death of his wife who, while on her deathbed, formed an incomprehensible obsession with the then-teenaged Ernie Sickert. When a powerful storm floods the prairie roads, causing havoc, Ernie and Loretta take shelter in a one-room schoolhouse where they are found by the newly arrived teacher, Vidalia Taggart. Vidalia has her own troubled past, one that has driven her to this stark and isolated place with only the journals of her lover Dov, recently killed in the Spanish Civil War, for company. Dill, arriving at the schoolhouse on Ernie's trail, falls quickly for Vidalia--but wonders whether he can compete with the insurmountable ideal of a dead man.