The patriarch, Milt Stone, who lost a leg fighting in Grant's army, is the Tom-Walker, circus slang for man on stilts. After the Civil War he takes his family west to the Missouri country. There he gains a reputation as a raconteur and as a passionate defender of the little man who works hard, fights the wars, and gets squeezed out by powerful interests. He lives to see his son and grandson fight in World War I and World War II, respectively, and return home from those wars, maimed like him, only to have to resume a fight just to stay alive.
Crowded with living characters, The Tom-Walker never loses the larger view of American history. From the Gilded Age to the Atomic Age, everybody is "trying to be either a Jay Gould or a Jesse James, out for easy money, everybody [is] wanting to be king of something: mines, railroads, cattle, outlaws, anything." How people like the Stones fare is the story within this story.