Orleanna was born the daughter of a doctor who was not very religious. She met Nathan and married him before he was drafted in World War II. After the war, Nathan was a changed man. He became abusive to Orleanna and her four daughters, but she did not leave him. She follows him to the Congo and attempts to care for her children in a difficult environment as best she can. As life in the Congo becomes more dangerous, Orleanna begins to express her own opinions, which Nathan does not appreciate and which he physically punishes her for. After her youngest daughter's death, she leaves Nathan but spends the rest of her life grieving for Ruth May.
Rachel is devastated to have to move with her family to the Congo shortly before her 16th birthday. All she wants is a "normal" American life, and she hates the Congo. She complains frequently, and becomes more and more assertive about trying to get out of the country as the situation deteriorates. After Ruth May's death, Rachel flees the Congo with Eeben Axelroot, whom she pretends is her husband. She has a series of marriages and sexual relationships in South Africa and other African countries before settling down as the owner of a "whites only" hotel called the Equatorial.
Leah and her twin, Adah, are intellectually gifted. Leah is very religious and idolizes her father at the start of the book. She attempts to support him in his grand plan to improve the Congo. As time goes on, however, Leah begins to question what she has been taught. She fights with her father, challenging him on his sexist and judgmental behavior. Leah falls in love with the schoolteacher and activist, Anatole, and after Ruth May's death they marry. Although Anatole is repeatedly imprisoned, he and Leah have four children together and continue to hope for a free and independent Congo.
Adah, like her twin sister, Leah, is intellectually gifted, but she suffers from partial paralysis. In spite of this, she is intelligent and a keen observer of her family and the world. When ants attack the village, Adah is left behind by her mother, who fights to save the youngest child, Ruth May. After Ruth May's death, however, Orleanna fights to get Adah back home to the United States. Once back in the U.S., Adah goes to college and medical school. She manages to regain her physical mobility, and becomes a respected researcher on tropical and infectious diseases.
Ruth May is frightened at first when her family moves to the Congo, but begins to make friends with the Congolese children. She grows ill and eager to go home, but her father will not let them leave. Ruth May dies when she is bitten by a green mamba snake. Ruth May's death haunts her mother and sisters for the rest of their lives. In the final chapter, Ruth May's spirit is shown watching as her mother and the three surviving sisters make a pilgrimage to visit her grave.
Unlike the rest of his family, Nathan does not narrate any part of the book, but his early story is told by his wife, Orleanna. Nathan was a successful football player in high school and became a minister. He met Orleanna while he was preaching, and they married before he was drafted in World War II. During the war he was injured and separated from his company of soldiers. The rest of the company was captured and many died on the infamous Bataan death march in the Philippine jungle. Nathan feels guilty for surviving and becomes fanatical about religion. Nathan abuses his wife and four daughters, and forces them to travel to the Congo so he can become a missionary. Once in the Congo, he refuses to leave, even when the family is warned they are in danger. After Ruth May's death, the rest of the family abandon Nathan. He moves into the jungle and forms his own church, but no one attends. Years later, he is killed when a village becomes convinced he is going to get their children killed by baptizing them in a crocodile-infested river.