Helga Crane is a teacher in the South, a short time after the First World War. She has a mixed racial background; her mother was from Denmark and her father was West Indian. She is light skinned with dark hair. Throughout the book, Helga is often materialistic and focuses on gaining attention from her peers. She is in her second year of teaching at the Negro School in Naxon when she decides that she can no longer support the school’s efforts. She doesn’t like the education system in the South and she wants to return to Chicago, even before the school year is finished. She finds the principal, Dr. Anderson, enchanting, but because of a clumsy remark, he fails to talk her into staying. She breaks off her engagement to a colleague and returns to Chicago.
Helga’s initial plan was to have her Uncle Peter support her. He is the only relative on the white side of her family who has been kind to her over the years. She visits his home and finds that he has married. His new wife is rude to Helga and tells her never to return. She tries to find work but has difficulty, since she doesn’t have references or many skills other than teaching. An employment agency within the Young Women’s Christian Association finds her a job as an assistant to Mrs. Hayes-Rore, who is going to travel and give lectures on racial problems.
Helga and Mrs. Hayes-Rore like each other and travel to New York. In Harlem, Mrs. Hayes-Rore introduces Helga to Anne Grey, who gives her a place to stay. Helga finds work and is initially happy with her life in Harlem, attending parties and other society functions. Eventually, she becomes irritated by Anne’s fight for equal rights and social justice, because Anne imitates the fashion and mannerisms of white society while disliking white people. Helga runs into Dr. Anderson in New York, but she mostly ignores his desire to spend time with her. Helga receives a letter from her Uncle Peter. He apologizes for having to cease communication and encloses a check for five thousand dollars. He reminds Helga that she has an aunt in Denmark that always liked her. Helga leaves for Denmark, feeling that she cannot live with black society and how it is treated in America.
Once in Denmark, Helga is pleased with how she is treated. Her family there, Herr and Fru Dahl, are wealthy and very welcoming. They dress her in colorful clothes, and the Danish people regard her as an exotic treasure. She is introduced to an eccentric artist, Herr Olsen, at a party. She learns that he will be painting her portrait. She spends more and more time with him and feels that they should be married. Helga receives a letter that Anne is marrying Dr. Anderson, and Helga feels conflicted. When Herr Olsen finally proposes, she refuses and tells him that she cannot be in an interracial marriage. Helga again feels unrest and decides that she must return to America where she can reconnect with black society, planning to eventually return to Denmark.
Helga returns to Harlem and stays in a hotel, instead of with Anne. She sees Dr. Anderson at a party, and when they are alone, he kisses her. She embraces him and feels a strong connection. Later, they plan to meet to talk about the kiss. She is excited at what will happen when they meet. Dr. Anderson visits her in the lobby of her hotel and apologizes for what happened, showing no interest in pursuing the relationship, since he is married. Helga becomes angry and slaps him. The next night, Helga goes out. It is windy and raining, so she takes refuge in a building that is having a religious meeting. She is swept up in the spiritual celebration and is escorted home by Reverend Green.
Helga decides to marry Reverend Green and become religious. They live in a small town in Alabama. She is initially pleased by the importance of her role as the preacher’s wife. She no longer has any of the glamour of her previous life. After having three children, and pregnant with a fourth, she begins to despair. Her fourth child is born and she reflects on her life, realizing that she doesn’t believe in religion and hates Reverend Green. Her fourth child dies within a week and she lies in bed for a long time. When she finally recovers, she decides that she should leave Reverend Green, but she doesn’t want to abandon her children. The book ends with her pregnant with a fifth child.