Having been left behind by her irresponsible mother as an infant, Hope has been raised by her Aunt Addie, a diner cook of some reknown. The two of them have moved around a lot, and the story opens with Addie and Hope having just arrived in the small rural town of Mulhoney, Wisconsin, from their last place of employment in New York. Hope had loved New York and was unhappy to leave. She has unresolved issues with her mother and dreams of her father, whom she has never met.
Hope spends the summer waitressing at the "Welcome Stairways Diner", where she gets to know a variety of interesting characters. Most significant of these is G.T. Stoops, the owner of the diner and an exceptional man who lives his Quaker beliefs in every aspect of life. Despite the fact that he has cancer, G.T. challenges the corrupt mayor of the town for his office.
Supported by Hope and a large part of the town's high school population, G.T. loses the election but is awarded the position when it is discovered that the incumbent mayor won unfairly. G.T. holds office during an idyllic two years of remission from his illness, during which time he makes much needed reforms, marries Addie, and offers to adopt Hope. Although G.T. dies right before Hope goes off to college, his relationship with her helps her to let go of her grief over her real parents. Hope accepts that it is Addie and G.T. who have shown her the love her parents should have, and through them she finds she has the strength to live her life fully and without regret.