Following the murder of her father, 9 year old Clara finds herself on Pungo Creek in an old house shared with her Great Aunt Sarah, her mother Rose and her younger sister Ivy. Rose sinks into alcoholism and is unable to shield her daughters from the volatile tempers, destructive behavior, incest and bleakness that have permeated the lives of the women of Pungo Creek for generations. Their grandmother silently endured her husband's rage. Her Uncle Benjamin molested his sister Pearl. When her cousin Kate is raped and murdered by her own brother - the same person who is assaulting Clara - the defenseless girl, having no refuge and no protector, makes a horrific choice.