The year is 1929, and newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton arrive in North Carolina to create a timber empire. Although George has already lived in the camp long enough to father an illegitimate child, Serena is new to the mountains—but she soon shows herself to be the equal of any worker, overseeing crews, hunting rattlesnakes, even saving her husband's life in the wilderness.
Together Serena and George ruthlessly kill or vanquish all who fall out of their favor. But when Serena learns that she will never bear a child, she sets out on her own to kill the son George had without her. Mother and child begin a struggle for their lives, and when Serena suspects George is protecting his illegitimate family, the Pembertons' intense, passionate marriage starts to unravel as the story moves toward its shocking finale.