The four Tillerman children barely remember their father, and their mother is slowly losing touch with reality. One night, she wakes her offspring in their ramshackle house on the dunes in Provincetown, Massachusetts, tells them to pack some clothes while she makes sandwiches, loads them into the car, and heads towards Bridgeport, Connecticut, over two hundred miles away. Along the way, she stops at a mall parking lot, tells the little ones to mind the eldest, thirteen-year-old Dicey, and walks off without explanation. When it becomes clear that their mother will not be returning, Dicey sets out to shepherd her brothers and sisters to Bridgeport on foot, in hopes that their Aunt Cilla, who sends them Christmas cards every year, will take them in. With only eleven dollars and fifty cents among them, the children follow a tattered road map and manage to make it to their destination, eluding authorities and the dangers of the road, and scrounging for food and shelter wherever the opportunity arises.
In Bridgeport, the children learn that Aunt Cilla has died, and that the sole inhabitant of her house is their cousin, nervous and dithering Eunice Logan, who, at middle age, is contemplating entering a convent. Cousin Eunice reluctantly takes the four children in out of a sense of duty, but she is ill-equipped to raise them, and the children have trouble adjusting in an environment where they know they are a burden. When it is discovered that their mother is in a catatonic state in a mental hospital with little hope for recovery, Cousin Eunice begins to search for a separate home for the two youngest Tillerman children, admitting that she is not up to the task of caring for all of them indefinitely. Determined that her family stay together, Dicey saves up money she earns doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, gathers up her siblings, and takes to the road again, this time to find the only other family member that she knows of—their maternal grandmother, Abigail Tilllerman, who lives near Crisfield, on the eastern shore of Maryland.
Abigal Tillerman is a bitter, reclusive woman who lives on a run-down farm seven miles from Crisfield. Ab has no phone, and her only means of transportation is a battered rowboat on which she comes into town occasionally to get supplies; the locals think she is "crazy as a coot." Ab has received a letter from Cousin Eunice, and so has been forewarned that the children are headed her way. She is rude and unfriendly when Dicey and the others arrive, making it clear that they are not welcome. Ab does not close the door to them completely, however, telling them they can stay for one night. When she does not demand that they leave the next day, the children, with nowhere else to go, work busily at fixing up the farm. As the days turn into weeks, the Tilllerman children break through their grandmother's defenses, and as their relationship grows, find that they have...
(The entire section is 733 words.)