Janey Larkin is the ten-year-old daughter of a migrant family in San Joaquin Valley, California, in the late 1930s when America is still suffering the effects of the Great Depression. Her most treasured possession is a Blue Willow plate that had once belonged to her great-great-grandmother. The picture of a bridge and a stream and a little house on the willow pattern plate represents the permanent home she dreams of.
Janey can barely remember her old home, a farm in Texas, and now that her father is an itinerant worker she has no place to call her own and no lasting friends, as the family has to move constantly. Despite the grinding poverty, the family is close and loving, and fun is had, as when Janey and her friend Lupe attend the county fair, and when the family goes fishing beside the river.
When Janey's mother falls sick, they have difficulty paying the rent. The rent-collector, Bounce Reyburn, is unsympathetic, and Janey is faced with having to sacrifice her one treasure.