Shabanu is the book's heroine and narrator. She is eleven at the beginning of the book. Although just a little more than a year passes during the course of the novel, Shabanu must grow up more than she ever wanted to or thought she could during that year. Shabanu spent her childhood in the desert with her mother, father, older sister, aunt, and cousins. Her parents dote on her. Since they have no sons, Shabanu takes on the herding responsibilities that a son would normally take. At the same time, she works diligently in the home, cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Shabanu is happiest, however, when she is with the camels. She loves the great beasts and handles them with gentleness and skill. Indeed, she often knows their ways better than Dadi. Shabanu is happiest when she is riding or walking free over the dunes with the quiet companionship of one of her beloved camels.

Shabanu often contrasts herself to her older sister, Phulan. Phulan is beautiful and graceful. Shabanu feels clumsy, short, and tomboyish in comparison. Shabanu envies her sister, but at the same time Shabanu deplores Phulan's empty-headed, dreamy, passive demeanor. In contrast, Shabanu is sharp- tongued, impulsive, rebellious, and capable.

Shabanu's willfulness repeatedly gets her into trouble. Her father struggles to discipline her and teach her to obey. Cholistani culture requires women to obey men, but Shabanu cannot become accustomed to the idea. As far as she is concerned, men are impulsive, lustful, and prone to violent anger. Most of the time, she tells herself, she knows how to handle things better than they do.

However, life deals Shabanu's free spirit a series of devastating blows. At first, she resists and despairs, but eventually she learns to cope with the challenges presented to her. By the end of the book, her childish rebelliousness has transformed into a steely will and a sharp, evaluative mind. She is determined to survive and retain the flame of her inner freedom. At the same time, she learns to act wisely and compassionately, with the well being of those she loves firmly in mind.