It is 1970. 'Bean' Holladay is twelve and her sister Liz fifteen when their artistic mother Charlotte, a woman who 'flees every place she's ever lived at the first sign of trouble', takes off to 'find herself'.
She leaves the girls enough money for food to last a month or two.
But when Bean gets home from school one day and sees a police car outside the house, she and Liz board a bus from California to Virginia, where their widowed Uncle Tinsley lives in the decaying antebellum mansion that has been in the family for generations.
An impetuous optimist, Bean discovers who her father was and learns many stories about why their mother left Virginia in the first place.
Money is tight, so Liz and Bean start babysitting and doing office work for Jerry Madox, foreman of the mill in town, a big man who bullies workers, tenants and his wife.
Bean adores her whip-smart older sister, inventor of word games, reader of Edgar Allan Poe, non-conformist.
But when school starts in the autumn, it is Bean who easily adjusts and makes friends, and Liz who becomes increasingly withdrawn. And then something happens between Liz and Maddox...