The narrator of the novel is Birdie Lee, a multiracial child who has a white mother and black father. She and her sister, Cole, are very close, yet differ in appearance. Her sister is described as "cinnamon-skinned, curly haired" traits associated with African Americans of mixed race. Birdie does not describe herself, but her interactions with others indicate she is lighter skinned than her sister and can pass as white.“…the woman behind the desk took one look at Cole and me and assigned us to different districts. I would be bused to the predominantly black school in Dorchester; Cole to South Boston, the Irish section, “in the interest of dahversetty,” the woman explained…”
The book is written in 3 parts: Part 1 takes place in 1975 Boston and Roxbury, Massachusetts when Birdie is 8 years old; Part 2 takes place in a small town in New Hampshire 6 years later when Birdie is 14 years old; Part 3 takes place when Birdie is 14½ years old and she runs away from her mother to try to find her father and sister.
Birdie is 8 years old and living with her family in Roxbury, Massachusetts. It is 1975 and racial tension in the Boston area is high as busing to desegregate the public schools is implemented. Her parents’ marriage falls apart; Birdie and her sister are sent to “Nkrumah, The Black power school.”
Birdie is questioned by the other students wanting to know what race she is; they ask if she’s Puerto Rican and demand “What you doin’ in this school? You white?”
With Cole’s sisterly protection and learning how to dress and talk like the other black students, Birdie successfully passes as black.
Near the end of the school year, Birdie’s parents divorce. Her father, Deck, has a new girlfriend, Carmen and he decides to move to Brazil, taking Cole with him.
Birdie is left with her mother, Sandy.
Sandy fears she is wanted by the FBI (COINTELPRO) for terrorism activities and so the two of them take off in the night.
After 6 years on the run, and changing identities and no real place to call home, Sandy decides that they should settle down. She chooses a small town in New Hampshire and creates new identities and backgrounds for herself and Birdie. They become the widow Sheila Goldman and her Jewish (white) daughter Jesse Goldman.
Birdie/Jesse attends the local public school, passing as white. She adopts the clothing, hair and vocal mannerisms of her peers yet longs for her sister and her own black identity.
Sandy/Sheila establishes a relationship with a local man she meets at a bar, Jim, and by Christmas, has told him the truth about Birdie/Jesse’s parentage. Birdie feels betrayed and begins to question if the FBI ever was after her mother. By the end of this section, she decides to run away from home to Boston and look for her Aunt Dot, her father’s sister, and hopefully find answers to where her father and her sister are.
Birdie finds her Aunt Dot in Boston and an old friend from Nkrumah, Ali, tells her his father may know something. From Ali’s father, Ronnie, she learns that her own father returned from Brazil and settled in California years earlier. While distraught that he hadn’t tried to find her, she commits to going to San Francisco to find them. With reluctant help from her white Grandmother Penelope, Birdie flies to San Francisco.
Before meeting with Cole, Birdie reunites with her father, Deck. He lives alone and professes to be glad to see Birdie again, but is emotionally distant. When the topic of Sandy/Sheila is broached, he alludes to her flight from the FBI, confirming Birdie's suspicions that Sandy was in little, if any, danger of being pursued by COINTELPRO. He eagerly shares his philosophy about race, a project he’d been working on since the Roxbury years. “…mulattos had historically been the gauge of how poisonous American race relations were. The fate of the mulatto in history and in literature, he said, will manifest the symptoms that will eventually infect the rest of the nation.”
His pleasure that she showed up, and equating it to a canary surviving in a coal mine, along with his preoccupation with his theories on race causes Birdie to express her anger with him.
"I heard myself say, 'Fuck the canaries in the fucking coal mines. You left me. You left me with Mum, knowing she was going to disappear. Why did you only take Cole? Why didn't you take me? If race is so make-believe, why did I go with Mum? You gave me to Mum 'cause I looked white. You don't think that's real? Those are the facts."
Eventually, her father tells her where Cole is and Birdie reunites with her long lost sister. Biridie decides to stay in San Francisco with Cole and go to school there.