Joan Skraggs is a heroine who siezes her destiny with both hands. At the beginning of the story, set in 1911, Joan’s mother has been dead for three years. Joan believes that her mother, a delicate woman, died of overwork on the farm. Joan has a sense that if she, too, remains on the farm, a life of thankless drudgery awaits her. Her embittered father treats Joan and her brothers like laborers, not family members. Joan remembers that her mother, who always tended the chickens, was also allowed to keep the egg money, the profit from selling the chickens’s eggs. Now that Joan is tending the chickens, she asks her father if she, too, may have the egg money. This request produces an eruption of anger from her father, who denies the request. Even worse, Joan’s father commits a cruel act against his daughter which causes her to lose faith in life in her father’s household. Joan’s legacy from her late mother is a sense of faith in herself and her destiny. Joan’s teachers at school confided in her mother that Joan was a quick learner and an excellent student. Her mother cherished a dream that Joan would become a schoolteacher, a respected profession. Her mother had foreseen that day when her daughter would need help, and she might not be there to offer it, so she hid the money she had put aside for Joan in the skirt of a handmade doll, Joan’s beloved Belinda.
Joan abandons the farm in secret and sets out for the big city, in this case Baltimore, Maryland. After an exciting train ride during which she is treated like a young lady, Joan lands on the streets of Baltimore, only to realize she does not know where she can go for shelter and safety. Worn out from her adventures, she falls asleep on a bench in a public park, only to be awakened there after dark by a concerned young man. At first Joan is reluctant to accompany him, but he assures her that his mother can help her. Joan senses that he is a sincere friend and follows him to his home, where his mother, who is used to her son bringing cats and dogs home, welcomes the lost young woman.
Joan decides to create a new identity to match this new life. She takes the name Janet Lovelace, and tells her rescuers, the Rosenbach family that she is eighteen years old, when in fact she is only fourteen. Mrs. Rosenbach hires the intrepid girl as a servant in the household. As a Catholic in a Jewish household, Joan/Janet dwells on the differences in their cultures and religion and comes to respect Judaism, and particularly the patriarch of the family, Mr. Rosenbach, who has such great faith in America. It is Mr. Rosenbach who encourages “Janet” to continue her education by allowing her free rein in his library and the time to read.
Events in the Rosenbach household are complicated by their son, David, who wants to live in Paris and beccome an artist. His family wishes that he were willing to take over his father’s department store. David takes Joan/Janet to the opera and gives her the gift of a red umbrella. Janet falls in love with him, and learning that he is leaving town, visits his bedroom at night to say good bye. They are discovered by the family’s housekeeper, who assumes the worst of the young people, though David defends himself and Janet from these accusations, which his parents eventually believe.
In the meantime, Janet’s father back on the farm has discovered her whereabouts and written to her. It is not a kind letter and Janet remains convinced that her future is ahead of her, not behind her. Mr. Rosenbach, who has founded a school, sponsors Janet as a student. Her mother’s legacy is fulfilled, and Janet looks forward to completing her education and anticipating life’s further adventures.