Fifty-seven-year-old Landon Carter narrates the novel, reflecting on events from 40 years in the past. The novel opens with a Prologue, in which the older Landon, living in the same North Carolina town as he did at the age of 17, stands near the Baptist church that figures prominently in the novel and gets himself in the mindset of his 17-year-old self. The story begins in 1958 and is, Landon tells us, both joyful and sad.
Seventeen-year-old Landon is a senior at Beaufort High School, which collaborates each year with Southern Baptist Church on a Christmas play called The Christmas Angel. The play, written by Reverend Hegbert Sullivan, the minister of the church, tells the story of a man who is so grief-stricken over the death of his wife (while giving birth to their only child that he is not much of a father to his child. An angel appears to the man, and she admonishes him to be a better father; she also performs a small miracle for the family on Christmas morning. The popular play, performed in the local playhouse, features seniors from the high school.
Landon's father is a congressman who spends most of his life in Washington, D.C., and is a stranger to his son. Landon's grandfather, who is now deceased, was a bootlegger and banker during the Great Depression, and he built the Carter family fortune by preying on the poor. One of Grandfather Carter's employees was Reverend Sullivan, who still harbors resentment against the Carters.
Like the narrative of The Christmas Angel, Reverend Sullivan's wife died during childbirth, and he has raised his daughter, Jamie, on his own. Jamie and her father are deeply connected, but Jamie is ostracized by her classmates because of her religious devotion, unflattering clothing and hairstyle, and tendency to help the downtrodden. Although Landon has known Jamie most of his life — as classmates and fellow church members only — he is surprised to notice at the beginning of his senior year...