Despite the frequent blend of past and present, the progression of the novel is very straightforward. The purpose of Ellen's story is to explain to the reader how she established herself in her new home, which she does by first describing her unhappy past, meanwhile working toward a complete picture of her stable, fortunate present with her "new mama."

When Ellen remarks that she envisions her father's body being carted away by "two colored boys," we are given an immediate message that the book is set in a time and place where racial discrimination is prevalent—in this case, the south during the mid to late 1970s. Ellen makes this comment not because she, herself, is racist, but because she has been raised in a highly racist community. The subjects of race relations and race-related tension will soon develop into one of the novel's main concerns. When, lying in bed with her dying mother, Ellen comments that there is a "terrible storm coming," she forebodes the nightmarish events that are indeed soon to come for her, including her mother's death, her father's torture, and the many unhappy homes of which she will bounce in and out over the next two years.