Opal’s father is a preacher and has recently moved them to Naomi, Florida. Opal finds few children of her age to play with and is very lonely. She begins thinking a great deal about her mother, who left her father and her when she was three years old. When Opal acquires Winn-Dixie, it is almost as though her new pet is urging her to find out more information about her mother. When she asks her father to tell her ten things about her mother, since she is now ten years old, he obliges:
- Opal’s mother could make anyone laugh.
- Opal’s mother had red hair and freckles.
- Opal’s mother liked to plant things. She could grow anything.
- Opal’s mother was a fast runner, and everyone knew not to let her get a head start.
- Opal’s mother was a really bad cook who could not even boil water.
- Opal’s mother loved stories and could listen to them all day. She especially liked funny stories.
- Opal’s mother never grew tired of looking at the constellations in the night sky.
- Opal’s mother hated being a preacher’s wife because of the constant criticism she felt she received from the members of the church.
- Opal’s mother loved to drink.
- Opal’s mother loved Opal very much, even though she ended up leaving her.
Many of the characteristics of Opal’s mother are actually shared by Opal herself. Opal enthusiastically memorizes these ten things about her mother, believing that if she can recite them, it will encourage her mother to stay when she comes back. She then goes out around town with Winn-Dixie, finding other lonely people. Knowing what it is like to feel lonely, she decides to share the ten things about her mother with the other lonely people, which leads some, like Gloria Dump, “the witch,” to open up to her in friendship. Gloria Dump suggests Opal try planting something in Gloria’s yard to see if she has a green thumb like her mother did, giving her a reason to keep returning to visit.
As Opal continues to befriend more lonely people, she tells her father the stories about each one, thinking that these stories will make her mother laugh when she returns and help keep her there with them. When Winn-Dixie runs away in a thunderstorm, she compiles a list of ten things about Winn-Dixie, memorizing it as well so that she will have something to hold on to. It is then that she realizes that the list doesn’t even begin to characterize her special dog and that the ten things she knows about her mother don’t actually tell her much either.
They find Winn-Dixie, and Opal goes away to her little tree that is now growing to tell her mother that the ten things she knows about her aren’t really enough, but that she will learn more. She realizes she doesn’t feel lonely anymore, because all her equally lonely friends have been brought together by her and Winn-Dixie, she has grown closer to her father because of all the stories she has shared with him while gathering stories for her mother, and her life is now filled with the love of her father, her dog, and her many friends. Thus, the ten things about her mother didn’t help her get her mother back, or even learn enough about her mother to truly know her, but they helped her fill the void of loneliness in her life as she reached out to other people, and they brought the little community together.