Alice Whelan is a high school girl growing up pleasantly in a small town in California's Santa Clara Valley just before World War II. The town and nearby ranches are populated with Spanish, Mexican, Portuguese, Japanese, and Slavonian, and she has always taken their presence in school and absence in church for granted. But emotionally and morally her world is narrow. She has moved in the same overlapping circles all her life, in school and church, and so has never questioned any of the habits and values she was brought up with. This novel is a series of episodes in which she learns to depart from parental sanction in order to act in a way she knows is right; to overcome some romantic notions about work and love; and to recognize greed and cruelty, first in a small way in her own life, and then with the beginning of the war, in the adult world. She meets the Gardners, a family of migrant workers from Oklahoma whom local tradition and Mrs. Whelan treat with shallow kindness and polite distrust as "drifters." In befriending the Gardner daughter, Peggy, Alice sees the Gardners' courage, endurance, lovingkindness, and deep roots, and has to defy her mother for the first time to express her loyalty to them. The following year Alice meets the ranch family of her Jugoslav friend Olga at a Christmas celebration. Her romantic nature sees them as exotically colorful and yearns to be one of them. When she tries to accomplish this by helping them light smudge pots during a frost the following spring, she learns how much the camaraderie is founded on plain hard work and self-sacrifice. In her junior year Alice gets a crush on a good-natured class clown, largely because he has become big and handsome. Following movie-inspired patterns, she glamorizes him, over-interprets his casual interest in her, and decides on an impossibly glamorous image for herself to create. She is brought to earth. The senior year is 1941. The Blackburns, new in town, are at the center of talk about controlling and spying on the Japanese. Alice declines to see that Walter Blackburn is a self-seeking, arrogant bigot. Pearl Harbor is attacked, and war is declared. When Walter has Mr. Okamura arrested for a trivial personal reason, Alice realizes what he is, and that if she had been wiser, she could have stopped him. Finally, local townsmen are urging evacuation of the Japanese, because of war-racism and greed for their properties. Under the direction of Mr. Macklin, Alice plans to work in a project to help prevent Japanese farmers' losing property. When Mr. Macklin dies because of an attack by hostile townspeople, she gives up, feeling "nothing does any good." But she goes back to the work, finally, deciding to do as he did: when facing trouble, continue to do whatever is left to do.