Book I is presented through the eyes of the main character, Stephen Kumalo, a native priest in Ndotsheni, a small community in the Ixopo district of South Africa. There is a terrible drought that is forcing the young people of the region to leave their agricultural communities and to emigrate to Johannesburg to seek employment in the mines.
The loss of so many young people has undermined the tribal traditions, which cannot be maintained in a large urban setting like Johannesburg.
Being known internationally as an author and spokesperson of the conditions in South Africa kept Paton out of trouble with the government.
However, the government did confiscate his passport in 1960, not returning it until the early 1970s.
At the age of twelve, he entered Maritzburg College (a secondary school).
After graduating, he enrolled in courses at the University of Natal.
His son, Absalom, has also disappeared into the city, and Kumalo hopes to gain word of him as well.
After a long and intimidating journey by train and bus to Johannesburg, Kumalo visits a parish priest named Theophilus Msimangu who helps him to locate his sister.
In the 1950s he was amongst those who tried to form an opposition Liberal Party to the Nationalist apartheid government.
Legislation against non-whites in government forced Paton, who was president of the multi-ethnic party, to disband rather than conform to the new laws in 1968.