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In August, 1937, sixteen-year-old Loretta Botsford looks into her bedroom mirror and assesses herself, giddy in the belief that she is in love. Annoyed with her brother, Brock, whom she sees as shifty and malicious, she grudgingly makes supper for him before going out for the evening. In the course of arguing with him about the shiftlessness of their father, recently fired, Loretta notices that Brock has a gun.

The next morning, Brock finds a boy in Loretta’s bedroom and shoots and kills him. After realizing what her brother has done, Loretta runs to her friend Rita’s house in desperation, with Rita attempting to calm Loretta but offering no solution. Loretta leaves Rita’s house and sees a police officer watching her at the end of the street. She wonders if he knows what has happened and if he is waiting for her to confess. She takes him to the scene of the crime. He tells her that everyone will know what she had done with the boy before he died, and that he will do the same to her. The officer’s name is Howard Wendall.

Now married to Howard, and pregnant, Loretta begins living with him on the south side of Detroit, glad to be away from the home that she considers a dump and the family she considers hopeless. Just when Loretta believes that she will have a settled, normal life, Howard is suspended from the police force because of his illegal activities, and the Wendalls move to the country with Mama Wendall, her husband, and their daughter, Connie; this is the worst possible scenario, as far as Loretta is concerned.

With her domineering mother and a sullen, broken-spirited husband, the one bright spot in Loretta’s life is her son, Jules, who seems different from the rest of the family—lively and joyful and always involved in a new activity, sometimes creative and sometimes destructive. With his sister, Maureen, he is playing in the barn one day. He lights a match and drops it into a pile of hay, burning down the barn and receiving a whipping from his grandmother.

In the meantime, while Howard is in Europe, fighting in the war, Loretta receives letters from her friend Rita, wondering how she is and when she will visit. Longing for city life and to be away from her mother-in-law, Loretta announces that she and the children are moving to Detroit. After a long night of name-calling and threats from Mama Wendall, Loretta, Jules, and Maureen leave, taking a bus to Detroit. Although Jules is confused and intimidated by big-city life, Loretta feels as if she is finally home again and resumes her routine of visiting friends and going out at night, narrowly avoiding being arrested for soliciting one evening.

Jules attends Catholic school, and at the age of twelve develops a crush on a nun, mainly because of her passionate piano playing. From this point on, he seems to realize that he is different from other boys his age, more sensitive and attuned to the special, hidden qualities that others, especially women, keep to themselves. Throughout his life he openly approaches girls and women who appeal to him, sometimes with tragic consequences, as in the passion he develops for Nadine, the niece of an employer. Nadine wants to run away, so they travel to the Southwest, staying in cheap motels. One day, Jules feels deathly ill and is in and out of consciousness. He wakes up to find himself alone; Nadine had left him, driving his car.

After spending some time in the West doing odd jobs, serving a stint...

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in the military, and even being a subject in a research study, Jules returns to Detroit. He sees Nadine in a restaurant. Although she is married, they start a passionate affair that ends with Nadine shooting Jules while they are taking a walk; she then turns the gun on herself. They both survive, but do not see each other again.

Meanwhile, Loretta has remarried following the death of Howard in an accident at work. Daughters Maureen and Betty have to adjust to a new man in the house, Pat Furlong. Maureen is an overachiever, and is proud to be home-room secretary at school. She spends much of her time in the library, which she finds peaceful and civilized compared to her home life. She is traumatized when she loses her secretarial notebook, and feels she let down not only herself but also the nuns who gave her the secretarial position. She seems to be giving up her dream of having a career and living in her own apartment, finding that there is an easy way for her to make money after she accepts a ride from a man and receives money for her services to him. This leads to money from other men as well. Furlong spots her one day in a strange man’s car, then beats her so badly when she gets home that it takes Maureen thirteen months to recover; Furlong is sent to prison.

After her recovery, Maureen attends night school and realizes that she wants a house and a husband more than anything. She decides that she will marry her English composition instructor, who is already married with children. They begin an affair when he offers to drive her home, and they eventually marry. Jules visits her in the aftermath of the fires, looting, and killings of the 1967 Detroit riots, but Maureen closes the door on him and the rest of the family when she realizes that she has the normalcy that she had always wanted and that she will soon have the baby to complete the picture. Jules, in the brief conversation they have at the door, says that he loves Loretta and will always think of her.