After her mother's premature death, Ellen, who is only eleven years of age, takes charge of the meager household finances. She starts accumulating money, as she realizes she will need money to have a better start later in life. In spite of her unhappy childhood Ellen is a smart girl; she borrows books from the library and is rather creative when it comes to spending her spare time. Her best friend, Starletta, is a young black girl who has poor, but kind parents. She is attracted to them although she has been brought up detesting "niggers" and although she herself cannot overcome all the racial prejudice that has been inculcated in her mind all her life. Ellen says she would never sleep in a "colored house". Also, she refuses to eat or drink anything when she is at Starletta's, remembering the myth that if you use the same glass or cup as "coloreds", the germs they have left on it will spread onto your lips and you will turn as dark as them.
On the other hand, her father himself has his "colored buddies" with whom he drinks. Ellen's odyssey (almost in a picaresque vein) starts the night Ellen's father mistakes her for her mother.