Jeanette, the single named narrator of the novel has lived for a long time with her mother and her father. Her mother is forceful woman who often seeks out conflict and who never sees the world with mixed feelings. For Jeanette's mother, the world contains enemies (the Devil, "Next Door," slugs, and sex) and friends (God, Auntie Madge, the novels of Charlotte Bronte, and slug pellets). Jeanette adds that she also fit into the category of friends, at first. Jeanette's mother shuns sex but wanted a child, so she sought a foundling by adopting Jeanette. Jeanette goes on to say that she could not recall a time when she did not know that she was special.
In her childhood, the family follows a standard routine on Sundays. Jeanette's mother wakes early and prays in the parlor until ten in the morning. After her mother quizzes Jeanette with a Bible question, they sit together listening to the World Service on the radio, a religious show. Jeanette takes notes on the successes and failures of the overseas missionaries for her mother's future report to their congregation.
In the afternoon, Jeanette and her mother usually take their dog for a walk. Jeanette remembers a time when she was walking through a more suspect part of town and a gypsy woman grabbed her hand. After studying her palm, the gypsy told Jeanette that she would never marry. Following this prediction, Jeanette thinks of two women she knows who are not married. Jeanette buys her comic at the paper shop they own and they often give her a free banana bar. Once the women offer to take her to the beach, but Jeanette's mother vehemently refuses and disallows Jeanette from ever returning to their store. Later Jeanette overhears her mother explain that the two women dealt in "unnatural passions." Jeanette does not understand what this means, but assumes that it has to do with the additives in their candies.
Jeanette's mother frequently tells Jeanette religious stories including that of her ownconversion. Jeanette's mother converted one night when she walked into the tent holding Pastor Spratt's Glory Crusade. Upon her conversion, the pastor gave her potted plant, a technique he learned as an advertising businessman.
The narrative then switches to a story about a beautiful princess who is so sensitive that the death of a moth could distress her for weeks. No one in the kingdom knows how to relieve her pain. One day, the princess finds an old hunchbacked woman in the forest. The hunchback asks the princess to take over her responsibilities that include milking goats, educating people, and composing songs for their festivals. The princess agrees, the old hunchback dies, and the princess never thinks of her worries again.
Jeanette then switches back to her life and describes her adoption in more detail. Her mother wanted to find a missionary child whom she could train to be a servant of God. Her mother followed a star that settled over her particular crib in her particular orphanage. Her mother took Jeanette and held her for seven days and seven nights as demons fought around them. Jeanette's mother tells her that the world is full of sin, but also urges her to change the world.