The year is 1937, and the Great Depression has hit the Dowdel family hard. 15-year-old Mary Alice is sent downstate to live with Grandma Dowdel while her mother and father lived in Chicago. Mary Alice is less than thrilled with the arrangement. Grandma's Hicksville farming community couldn't be more different from Chicago if it tried, and the grandmother Mary Alice remembers from childhood is a no-nonsense country gal.
Having no choice in the matter, Mary Alice arrives by train in September with her beloved cat Bootsie and prized Philco radio. Day one in the new high school finds Mary Alice getting on the wrong side of the local bully, Mildred Burdick. Mildred brazenly follows Mary Alice home, demanding a dollar---but Grandma Dowdel turns the tables on the tyrant, slyly untying Mildred's horse. Faced with a barefoot 5-mile-hike home, Mildred loses interest in making trouble for Mary Alice. October brings plenty of other trouble, however, when another teen hooligan - August Fluke Jr. - gets in the habit of knocking down privies for pre-Halloween amusement. With the help of a strategically strung wire and a pan of glue, Grandma Dowdel trips up Augie's trickery, with a hot coat of glue that sticks "till kingdom come." Luckily, Grandma's treats prove far sweeter than her tricks: at the party, Mrs. Dowdel dishes up home-baked pies made with borrowed pecans and pumpkins.
In November, Armistice Day cracks dawn with a bang when Grandma rises to shine at the annual Turkey Shoot. The Legion Auxiliary ladies serve stew at noon for a dime-a-cup---but with Grandma Dowdel as cashier, this year's price is pay-what-you-can-afford, publicly pressuring the banker, Mr. L.J. Weidenbach, for five dollars. The money Grandma raises is given to Mrs. Abernathy and her son, a war veteran gassed and injured in combat now using a wheelchair.
As the Virgin Mother in the school Christmas pageant, Mary Alice is set to steal the spotlight from the local snob Carleen Lovejoy and make Carleen Lovejoy jealous. The moonlit winter nights find Grandma and Mary Alice trapping foxes; with the extra money, Grandma buys Joey a train ticket and he arrives just in time for the pageant. But when Mildred Burdick's illegitimate baby turns up in the manger, Christmas is anything but a silent night.
Mary Alice stirs the town up by submitting an anonymous article to a community newspaper and a new boy---Royce McNabb---arrives just in time for Valentine's Day. Carleen develops an instant crush on Royce. With the help of best friend Ina-Rae, Mary Alice fools Carleen into believing that Royce sent Ina-Ray a valentine. Meanwhile, Grandma hosts a tea for the Daughters of the American Revolution and country bumpkin Effie Wilcox learns that the hoity-toity Mrs. L.J. Weidenbach is her long-lost sister.
In spring, Grandma takes in a New York artist, Arnold Green, as a boarder for a whopping $2.50 a day as Mary Alice invites Royce over for an ostensibly "study" focused-date. The snake Grandma keeps in the attic drops down on Maxine Patch, the postmistress, whom Green was painting naked, or nude, as he prefers, leaving Maxine shamed (as she ran through town au natural ) and Arnold in shock. Grandma cameos as matchmaker, introducing Green to Mary Alice's English teacher, Miss Butler. Mary Alice survives her first tornado, and the school-year wraps up with a hayride that finds Royce and Mary Alice promising to exchange letters. A year down yonder leaves Mary Alice with a more tenderhearted view of country-life and Grandma Dowdel, and she hesitates to head back to Chicago. Wedding bells ring when World War II ends, and Mary Alice returns to tie the knot with Royce McNabb on Grandma's front porch.