A work of fiction, most of Vale of Tears takes place in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, where the book's protagonist, Coralie, is trying to scrounge up enough money during the New Year holiday to pay her rent. Part of the book is set in France, where Coralie spent part of World War 2. Through 14 chapters that alternate between the present and past and seem to correspond with Christ's passion, the reader learns how Coralie's fortunes have changed steadily for the worse from childhood to middle age, beginning when she had to endure the spite of her step-mother, a woman who eventually stole her inheritance and separated Coralie from her only child. From being a beautiful light-skinned woman who was happily married and prosperous at one time, Coralie eventually finds herself being forced to sell herself and live apart from her only child, as her fortunes begin to get worse. In the end, she finds herself reduced to begging for money from family members and acquaintances and washing clothes for prostitutes.