This novel opens in 1897, as its main character, Hana, marries into the Matani family of Wakayama Prefecture. She is moving downstream along the river Ki, as her grandmother insists it is proper for a bride to do. Hana's convictions about her duties are clear: to serve her husband and his family's interests, subsuming herself and leaving her old life, including her grandmother. This she will do with great energy and skill, promoting her husband Keisaku's political career and agricultural projects behind the scenes. But all does not go well with the Matani family, landowners from an old samurai lineage. Times are changing, and furthermore, no male members of the family is able to be a fit successor to Keisaku.
But gradually, another pattern emerges in Hana's life, one that was not part of her traditional values. She sees her grandmother's spirit in her rebellious daughter Fumio, and her granddaughter Hanako, in turn, feels a connection to her. There is a whole line of strong-willed women, and even though the way they live changes so much that Hana's aesthetics, manners, and values seem quite foreign to the younger generation, still there is a connection. During the disastrous period of WWII, Fumio points out, people turned to their mothers' families for support, and says that matrilineal families are natural. Indeed, the matriline is surviving quite well at the end of the novel, after the total downfall of the patrilineal Matani family.
The final page returns to the metaphor of the river Ki: Hanako notices that it remains green as it flows downstream, like the continuity of the women who've married downstream along it, and that it merges into a vast and changing ocean, like the wide-open possibilities in front of Hanako in an unfamiliar postwar world.