The narrator begins by recounting events in her adolescence, when she lived in Pittman County in rural Kentucky and was known as Missy. Since then, she has changed her name to Taylor. (To avoid confusion, she is referred to as Taylor throughout this summary.) Taylor tells the story of Newt Hardbine’s father, who was inflating his tractor tire when it overfilled and exploded, throwing him to the top of a Chevron sign. The accident left him deaf. Taylor explains that she and Newt Hardbine look like brother and sister. Like the Hardbines, Taylor and her mother are poor. Taylor says that no one could predict whether she or Newt would be the one to “get away.”
Taylor continues to attend high school, and Newt drops out to work on his father’s tobacco field. He impregnates a girl named Jolene Shanks and marries her. Many girls at the high school drop out to have babies, but Taylor makes up her mind to avoid pregnancy. She credits her handsome science teacher Mr. Hughes Walter for changing her life, since he tells his class of a “real job” working at Pittman County Hospital. With her mother’s encouragement, Taylor applies for the job and gets it.
One day, when Taylor is working at the hospital, Jolene and Newt are brought into the emergency room. Jolene’s shoulder is bleeding from a bullet wound, and Newt is dead. From clues and insinuations, we gather that years of abuse and neglect from his father led Newt to shoot Jolene and himself. The horror of the scene makes Taylor vomit. Later that night she decides she will not quit her job, since she has survived the worst she will see.
With the money Taylor earns from her job, she buys a rundown ’55 Volkswagen bug and decides to leave Pittman for good. Her mother realizes that Taylor wants to leave and makes her daughter prove that she can change the car tires and tend to the car if it breaks down. As she drives off, Taylor (who at this point still goes by the name Missy) promises herself that she will change her name by driving until the gas runs out and naming herself after whatever town she happens to land in. She ends up calling herself Taylor because she runs out of gas in Taylorville. She also promises herself to drive west until her car dies and then settle wherever she ends up. She breaks the second promise when the bug dies on the Great Plains of Oklahoma, a vast expanse that depresses Taylor with its flatness.
Taylor’s car breaks down in the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Taylor and her mother have “head rights”—that is, they have enough Cherokee blood that they are permitted to live in the Cherokee Nation if they choose. Taylor finds the Nation disappointing. Exhausted, she stops in a bar for some coffee. She picks out a postcard decorated with a picture of two Indian women on it, one of whom is wearing red and turquoise, Taylor’s favorite colors. At the bar sit an Indian man and a mean-looking white cowboy. An Indian woman sits at a table, looking cautiously at the men. When Taylor gets into her car to leave, the woman follows her and sets a baby down in the passenger seat, telling her to take it. She says only that the baby belongs to her dead sister and that Taylor should not go back into the bar. Then she walks away, leaving the baby with Taylor.
Taylor starts driving. She cannot determine the child’s gender, and it keeps so quiet that Taylor wonders whether it is alive or dead. When Taylor realizes the child has wet itself, she stops at a motel, where she persuades the kind woman working at the front desk to let them stay free of charge. In the motel room, Taylor gives the child a bath and sees that it is a girl and that she has been bruised and sexually abused. Taylor, shocked, almost throws up. She puts the baby to bed and writes a postcard to her mother, saying, “I found my head rights, Mama. They’re coming with me.”