After her mother commits suicide by overdosing on her medication, eleven- year-old Ellen, the title character and narrator of the book, must find herself a loving home and family to take her in. Immediately after her mother's death, Ellen endures repeated physical, psychological, and sexual abuse by her alcoholic father and, because of her father's habit, is forced to pay the bills, shop for groceries, and cook for herself. Ellen retreats to her friend Starletta's house for refuge from her father and his food-grubbing, flesh- grabbing friends. Starletta and her parents, who are black, live in a grungy cabin without an indoor bathroom.
When her teacher finds a bruise on Ellen's arm, she intervenes, and Ellen is sent to live with Julia, the school's art teacher, and Roy, her husband. Both Julia and Roy are young, liberal hippies who care for Ellen as best they can while she is with them. Together with Starletta, they celebrate Ellen's eleventh birthday, which she had nearly forgotten. However, Ellen must leave Julia and Roy when her grandmother battles for and wins custody of her in court. Ellen does not want to leave Julia and Roy to stay with her grandmother—a cruel, miserly old woman who has scarcely talked to her ever before—but she must, per the court's orders.
Ellen spends the summer with her grandmother, whom she calls her "mama's mama," and is miserable with her. Her grandmother owns farmland and orders Ellen to work the fields with her black servants beneath the scorching summer sun. While working the fields, Ellen befriends Mavis, a kind black woman who teaches Ellen how to row and who tells Ellen how she had known her mother as a child. Mavis notes how much Ellen resembles Ellen's mother. Ellen's grandmother, however, is insistent that Ellen is a mirror image of her father, a wretched man whom both Ellen and her grandmother hate. She is constantly reminding Ellen that she is just like her father and somehow wants revenge on him through her torture of Ellen. Ellen's grandmother also tells Ellen that she is to blame for her mother's death, because Ellen had allowed her to die. During the course of her stay with her grandmother, Ellen's father dies, having suffered an aneurysm as a result of his habitual binge drinking. Ellen, who has thought of killing her father many times, had not planned on being sad to hear of his death. However, she feels as she does when a movie star dies—a distant sadness—and sheds a single tear for him. Her grandmother is furious at her show of emotion for her father and tells her never to cry again. Ellen is scarred for a long time afterwards, for at the close of the book, she still cannot bring herself to cry. After her father's death, Ellen determines that her grandmother had been paying her uncles, Rudolph and Ellis, to spy on her and her father while she was still living with him. When Rudolph brings over the flag that had been on Ellen's father's casket, her grandmother turns him away and later burns the flag in a wood fire she's made outside. When her grandmother falls ill, Ellen cares for her with the utmost tenderness, as she does not want to be blamed for yet another death. Inevitably, her grandmother dies, and Ellen frames her body with fake flowers, as if to "trick" God into accepting her into heaven.
After her grandmother's death, Ellen is sent to live with her aunt Nadine, and her cousin Dora. Nadine and Dora treat Ellen condescendingly and ignore her for being "cheap," though they have little more money than Ellen and far less integrity. For Christmas, Ellen wants to give Nadine and Dora a wonderful gift. Because she cannot afford to buy them a present, Ellen uses her artistic talent and paints them a picture of two cute-looking cats. Ellen would not have personally chosen to paint cats, as they are empty of any deep emotional quality, though she knows that Nadine and Dora will appreciate them more than her pictures of the brooding ocean. When Nadine asks Ellen what she wants for Christmas, Ellen asks only for a package of art paper, though she secretly hopes that Nadine will give her a few other surprise gifts. Ellen works up her hope for these other few gifts and for Nadine and Dora's appreciation of her cat painting. Both of her hopes, disappointingly, are crushed on Christmas Day when she receives only the pack of white paper and later overhears Nadine and Dora making disparaging remarks about her painting, though Nadine had pretended to like it earlier that morning. Upon hearing this, Ellen is deeply ashamed and, moreover, enraged. She shuts herself in her room, and when Dora and Nadine aggravate her, she retaliates. Nadine orders Ellen out of her house on Christmas day, and Ellen packs up her box and walks across town to the Foster lady's house in hopes that she will take her in.
Ellen wears her best dress so that she will make a good first impression and, after a few moments of hesitation, knocks on the Foster lady's" door. The woman, soon to become Ellen's "new mama," welcomes Ellen into her warm home and is concerned for Ellen's well being. Ellen offers her the one hundred and sixty six dollars she has been saving for the past two years in exchange for a home and a bit of attention. Ellen's new mama refuses the money but offers to call the county the first thing the next morning to negotiate her adoption of Ellen. In bed that night, Ellen thinks to herself how lucky she is to have her new mama, who, in the future, will provide her with plenty of love, food, and nurturing.
After Ellen has settled in at her new mama's house, she wants to invite Starletta to sleep over, since they have drifted apart as each has grown older. Ellen thinks how brave it is to be breaking a social rule in having a black person sleep over a white person's house. Ellen is ashamed as she remembers how, two years ago, she would not even eat supper with Starletta and her family and only because of their skin color. Now, Ellen vows to lick Starletta's cup if that is what it takes to prove her love for her. When Starletta does come over Ellen's new house, Ellen confesses to her the remorse she feels for past prejudices and, ultimately, realizes that it has been Starletta, not herself, who has had the most hardship to endure.