Leonard Strickland, an attorney who dies early in the novel. Leonard is a quiet, courteous, gentle, and philosophical man. He has been a faithful, devoted husband to Nell and father to Cate and Lydia. An idealist, Leonard had thought seriously of going to fight in the Spanish Civil War but was talked out of it by his uncle, Osgood. Leonard is an orderly, neat man. He is a good, conservative financial planner and provider. Leonard has a lantern jaw, stooped shoulders, and thick glasses. He hates violence and any kind of scene and enjoys listening to classical music on radio earphones and reading his beloved philosophers, Montaigne, Cicero, and Emerson. He has always been the voice of reason, and his widow and daughters think of him often, reflecting on what his opinion of various situations would be.
Cate Strickland Patchett Galitsky, a twice-divorced thirty-nine-year-old when the novel opens. She is a college teacher specializing in the works of D. H. Lawrence. She is now teaching at the financially troubled Melanchthon College in Davenport, Iowa. Cate is an assertive, independent, strong-willed person who often causes turbulence, sometimes in her own family. She keeps her chin up and walks with an authoritative, pelvis-first stride. She is something of a leftist and feminist and enjoys shocking people, especially complacent people, and taking dramatic actions. Her behavior can border on the rude. To protest the Cambodian invasion, she took the students of the New York City private girls’ school at which she was then teaching to the Lincoln Tunnel in taxicabs and there blocked traffic until she was arrested. Cate’s first husband, Lieutenant Pringle Patchett, was an Air Force pilot. Her second, Jake Galitsky, went mad. Cate is unconventional and skeptical about the nuclear family. Childless, she is reluctant to endanger her independence again by marriage, however tempting it is. She is an activist for causes in which she believes.
Lydia Strickland Mansfield, a thirty-six-year-old mother of two boys and the estranged wife of Max Mansfield. Lydia is now a student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the lover of Stanley Edelman. Lydia is a highly organized woman, perhaps a little manipulative. She has in the past kept her emotions under strict control and her life compartmentalized. She is an attractive, health-conscious woman with lavender-blue eyes. Lydia believes that she is beginning life anew, with her education, her lover, and her budding career in television, but she is still a worrier, never really relaxed and happy.
Maxwell Powell Mansfield, an investment banker in Winston-Salem, Lydia’s estranged husband. He is a careful man, a good financial planner, pragmatic and reliable. He is for a time bewildered and hurt by Lydia’s desire for a divorce. Max is a traditional husband, provider, and father to his two boys. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and studied at the London School of Economics. He pilots his own plane.
Leo Mansfield, a somewhat rigid fifteen-year-old boy. He tends to be formal and critical, self-contained and principled, and perhaps even stubborn. An idealist, Leo plans to join the foreign service someday.
Dickie Mansfield, an overweight, cuddly, happy thirteen-year-old who is a talented clarinet player. He has sinus trouble and is not athletic but enjoys his music and takes the world as he finds it.
Elizabeth Broadbelt Mansfield, the granddaughter of the president of the bank where Max works. She is young, bright, athletic, and attractive.
Stanley Albert Edelman, a thirty-one-year-old podiatrist from Brooklyn. He is slim, dark, and Jewish, with an Italian mother. He practices in Winston-Salem and becomes Lydia’s lover. Edelman fears some kind of catastrophe and is survivalist-minded. Because one day it may be necessary to run, he believes that feet should be kept in good shape.
Roger Jernigan, the owner of Sunny Enterprises, an Iowa-based insecticide/herbicide corporation. He lives in his own castle forty miles from Davenport. Roger is in his late forties, stocky, gap-toothed, and ruddy-faced, with unruly reddish-blond hair. He is strong-willed, overtly masculine, energetic, and curious, with shrewd green eyes. Roger is a believer in self-reliance and is somewhat conservative politically, especially when it comes to government interference in private enterprise. He courts Cate.
Jody Jernigan, a twenty-year-old senior at Melanchthon College. Jody is a talented actor, singer, composer, and guitarist. He is a sensitive, graceful, willowy young man who may be a latent homosexual.
Sunny Jernigan, a mildly retarded thirty-three-year-old man whose clear features have remained boyish. He takes pleasure in weight training and will become his brother Jody’s bodyguard. Sunny is a happy person and capable of considerable independence.
Osgood Strickland, Leonard’s old uncle, a hermit who lives near Mountain City in a mountain cave he owns. Osgood returned from World War I mutilated, missing the end of his nose.
Theodora Blount, the “maiden queen” of Mountain City society. Wealthy and in her sixties, she has never married. Theodora is conservative, somewhat selfish, and demanding. She is very concerned about family bloodlines, especially her own. She is Cate’s godmother.
Wickie Lee, a teenage, pregnant, unmarried mountain girl who is taken in by Theodora Blount, for reasons of Theodora’s own. She is skilled at making ingenious dolls of walnut shells, corn shucks, and old nylon stockings.
Azalea Clark, Theodora Blount’s black maid, from Mountain City. She is, in the way these things evolve, also Theodora’s close friend.
Sicca Dowling, a widow who is a good friend of Theodora and Nell. She has a serious drinking problem.
Latrobe Bell, a one-term U.S. representative from Mountain City who once courted Theodora. Bell is a political reactionary, given to fulminating against communists, foreigners, and the like.
Buddy Bell, the son of Latrobe and Lucy Bell. He works in missile research in Huntsville, Alabama.
Jerome Ennis, a forty-one-year-old who runs a home security business. He is married to Teenie, who is two years younger than he is. Both childhood friends of Cate, they have a son, Johnny. Teenie runs a nursery school in Mountain City.
Renee Peverell-Watson, a teacher of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She has a doctorate from Harvard, is stylish, smokes little cigars, and has a fashionable home and clothes. She is a mulatto, and the white Reverend Peverell was one of her ancestors. She is an inspirational friend and teacher of Lydia.
Calvin Edwards, a black television producer at a station in Greensboro. He is thirty-six years old, Renee’s boyfriend, and Mary McGregor Turnbull’s producer. A large, heavy man with a rich bass voice, Edwards is loose and casual. He dreams of establishing a television network devoted to cultural programming.
Mary McGregor Turnbull, an elegant and well-connected elderly lady of a fine old family who has a television cooking show, Southern Kitchens. She gives Lydia her start.
Merle Meekins Chapin, the wife of the Reverend Marcus Chapin. She was a childhood friend of Nell and her classmate at Farragut Pines Academy. Merle is ill when they meet again on Ocracoke Island.
Marcus Chapin, an Episcopal priest in his sixties. He is a religious conservative, opposed to the ordination of women. He is, temporarily at least, without a parish. Marcus is fit, with white crewcut hair and blue eyes. He is greatly saddened by his beloved wife’s illness.