Eleven-year-old Mary Adare and her brother, Karl, who is fourteen years old, are left penniless with their mother, Adelaide, after her married lover dies. It is 1932, and many people are suffering through the Great Depression. Adelaide tries to keep the family together by pawning her few bits of jewelry, but this fails to bring in enough money. In desperation, she leaves Mary, Karl, and her newborn baby to fend for themselves, leaving them for stunt pilot Omar. Adelaide and Omar fly off in his barnstorming plane, never to return. The children are left to care for the baby. When things get even more desperate, Mary and Karl give their unnamed baby brother to the Millers, Catherine and Martin.
Mary and Karl hop a freight car for Argus, where their aunt, Fritzie Adare Kozka, runs a butcher shop. Mary arrives safely with a little box containing her mother’s garnet necklace, but Karl, after arriving with Mary in Argus, jumps back on the train. Fritzie and her husband take Mary in, give her a bed in their daughter Sita’s room, and give her some of Sita’s old clothes, sparking a lifelong jealousy in Sita.
Mary discovers that the necklace box contains only a pawn ticket. She puts this disappointment behind her and busies herself with the butcher shop and with school. She becomes friends with Celestine James, once Sita’s closest friend. Celestine is more like Mary—competent and practical—than like Sita—who has romantic notions about herself. When Fritzie shows Mary a postcard from her mother in Florida, Mary sends the card back to her mother, with a note that her (her mother’s) three children have died.
Mary had made a new life in Argus after traveling there by train with Karl. Her brother, however, broke both legs after jumping again from the train. Fleur Pillager, a Chippewa woman, helped him to heal. After recovering, Karl begins to fantasize about rescuing his mother from Omar, who is now married to her. Eventually, Karl enters a Catholic orphanage in Minneapolis and plans to become a priest. His vocation is mostly self-preservation, however, and he leaves the seminary in early adulthood, returning just long enough to recognize a young seminarian as his lost brother—the abandoned baby, now known as Jude Miller.
It is now 1941, and Mary is running the butcher shop for her aunt, whose health is failing. Mary, who knows that she is not attractive, makes a play for Celestine’s half brother Russell, who bluntly resists her advances. Fritzie and her husband retire to Arizona, and Sita moves to Fargo, North Dakota, to model for a local department store. There, Sita puts most of her energies into preserving her looks and angling for an advantageous marriage. She receives a forwarded letter from Jude’s adopted mother that tells the story of how she raised him and announces his ordination in Minneapolis. Sita goes to the ceremony and later redeems Adelaide’s ancient pawn ticket for the old garnet...
(The entire section is 1208 words.)