In summary, this is the story of a boy born to immigrant Mennonite farmers at the end of the 1890's who are forced to relocate due to sickness, adverse winters and crop failures. Their heritage is mistaken at the outset of WWI.
They are confused with Germans and subjected to horrible acts committed through ignorance. Our lead character, Jakob, is witness to these acts. He starts to question why his faith and culture does not allow them to protect themselves. While growing up on the farm he learns of relatives who remained in Europe.
His family had avoided all discussion of the European relatives. He questions this and finally decides to set off to find these relatives in Holland and Germany. He travels to Europe against the advice of friends and family with his wife. After visiting family in Holland, his wife refuses to accompany him to Germany for fear of a possible war.
Despite this, Jakob travels to Germany and becomes trapped. Jakob's life changes. He has affairs and abandons the ways of his faith and culture. His wife, trapped in Holland also and has an affair with a Dutch Resistance writer. The story continues to track their respective lives through and after the war. Jakob finally establishes himself in the Caribbean.