As Lily travels, the road is hot and largely empty, apart from occasional cowboys or “wagonfulls of Mexicans.” Lily and Patches rest in the shade during the hottest parts of the day and then keep going until night. Lily stops to buy food—like jerky and biscuits—in the small towns they pass, where she also often asks lonely shopkeepers about road conditions.
In the not too distant future, the tedium and isolation of this journey will be drastically reduced by modern transportation. In the meantime, Lily bravely and capably guides herself forward.
After passing Indian Reservations, Lily falls into a rhythm with Priscilla Loosefoot, a Navajo woman not much older than Lily and riding a donkey. Priscilla says her parents had traded her to settlers for two mules, but she ran away after the settlers abused her. The two make camp together and Priscilla says they could make a good team. That night, however, Lily awakens to find Priscilla going through her saddlebags. She pulls her revolver on Priscilla, who defends herself by saying she was taking advantage of a rare opportunity. Despite understanding where Priscilla is coming from, Lily tells her to stay behind and moves on alone.
Priscilla’s story underscores the lack of value placed on girls’ lives at this time in history. Her attempt to rob Lily further highlights the desperation created by poverty, especially for Native Americans who also face racial discrimination and many levels of structural oppression. In keeping with her character, Lily does not begrudge another woman doing whatever it takes to survive, yet is smart enough to continue on alone.
After twenty-eight days, Lily arrives in Red Lake. She notes that she is filthy and has lost weight, and that there are new lines around her eyes, but she has made it “through that darned door.”
Shortly after Lily’s arrival, she meets the county superintendent, Mr. MacIntosh. He explains that the board wants certified teachers with at least an eighth-grade education, and she will be there until they find someone more qualified. Lily is happy to see that the one-room schoolhouse has an oil-stove and a blackboard; there are no living quarters, however, so she sleeps on the schoolroom floor in her bedroll. Nevertheless, Lily loves being able to teach exactly what she wants and how she wants. Her students are of all ages and extremely poor. There are no school supplies, so children practice reading with whatever texts they can find at home.
As a woman in a man’s world, teaching represents a rare opportunity for Lily to be her own boss. The lack of school supplies underscores the continued poverty of the American Southwest. Nevertheless, Lily continues to be appreciative of whatever she has—a trait ingrained in her by a childhood of poverty and hard work. She illustrates her resourcefulness by having children learn from whatever materials they can find.
Halfway through the year, Mr. MacIntosh finds a certified teacher for Red Lake. For the next three years after that, Lily moves between small towns in the same county as a teacher. Despite her nomadic and lonely existence, she loves teaching and feels confident in her skills. When the war ends, however, Mr. MacIntosh says he has to fire her, asserting that despite her glowing reviews she will never be as qualified as all the certified teachers returning home. Lily is angry, having worked hard to teach “wild and illiterate kids” in small towns. Mr. MacIntosh says she has “pretty eyes” and will be fine if she just finds a husband.
Though Lily found some independence in teaching, she is ultimately still under the thumb of society and held back by the lack of opportunities she has had to complete her own education. Mr. MacIntosh’s attitude reflects the fact that marriage was still considered the ultimate goal and means of stability for women of the time. Sexism like his is an obstacle Lily will have to consistently overcome to establish her career.
During the ride back to the ranch, Lily sees a red airplane, her first ever. She excitedly gallops after it and, upon realizing that it stays up by “planing the air,” wishes she had students to explain this to. When she makes it home, the ranch seems smaller than when she left, though in good condition, and she notices how much older her family looks. Buster and Dorothy are now married, and the latter basically runs the ranch. Mom frets about Helen, who is now sixteen, finding a husband; Helen, meanwhile, wants to move to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming an actress.
This moment represents a major turning point in Lily’s life, as the red airplane opens her eyes to the world of possibilities that exist beyond the KC ranch. It also represents the increasing presence of modern technology in her world. Mom’s worries reflect attitudes toward women of the time, while Helen’s dream of acting sets the stage for her later trouble in Los Angeles.
Having seen the airplane and cars in Arizona, Lily has doubts about the future of the carriage horse business. Lily no longer wants the life of a horsewoman and realizes that Dad is stuck in the past. Seeing the plane made her understand how much more there is to the world, and she doesn’t want to sit around at the ranch waiting for a man to propose or becoming a “spinster.” A month later, she boards a train to Chicago—“the biggest, most boomingest city I could find.”
Lily realizes that modern technology is inescapable, and those like Dad who do not embrace it will be left behind. Her reference to becoming a “spinster” (an older unmarried woman) again reflects the sexist attitudes of the time, while her decision to go to Chicago on her own reiterates Lily’s boldness and self-reliance in her pursuit of something greater than life on the ranch.
The trip to Chicago takes only four days, whereas Lily’s trip with Patches took a month to go half that distance. Lily gawks at the size of the crowds and buildings, and marvels at the lake, wondering how so much water could sit “there undrunk, unused, and uncontested.” She rents a room in a women’s boarding house and circles “help wanted” ads in the newspaper. Finding a job proves more difficult than expected, as people are unimpressed by her lack of education and big-city experience.
The shortness of the trip to Chicago suggests how much modern technology will do to connect the world in ways like never before. Having grown up surrounded by poverty, Lily is shocked by the city’s abundance. Despite having shown herself to be intelligent and capable, Lily has trouble finding work, suggesting the lack of value placed on certain types of labor and how the wealthy look down on people from impoverished backgrounds.
Lily resigns herself to becoming a maid, and quickly finds work with a commodities trader and his wife, Mim. Their house is modern, with a radiator and running water. Mim is rude and dim, however, and fires Lily after a week for not behaving meekly enough. Lily finds another maid job, but also starts going to school in the evenings to gain her diploma, reflecting that “polishing silver for rich dunderheads” is not her “Purpose.”
The novel associates unearned wealth with being snobby and shallow, in contrast to the moral virtue imbued by hard work. Lily resents being treated poorly by the rich, and her experience with Mim strengthens her personal conviction to eventually work for herself alone.
Lily loves the hustle and bustle of Chicago and grows close with her roommate, a spunky Irish girl with long black hair named Minnie Hagan. The two regularly discusses politics and religion and attend rallies for granting women the vote. Minnie gives Lily her first tube of red lipstick for her twenty-first birthday, and Lily considers her a genuine friend. One evening, however, Lily comes home to learn that Minnie’s hair got caught in the machinery at the factory where she worked, pulling her into the grinder gears and killing her. Lily reflects on how delicate and unpredictable life is, and chops her hair off to just below her ears.
Minnie shows Lily a different kind of woman than she has seen before, while Chicago expands her knowledge of the world at large. Lily’s activism foreshadows her attempts to stand up for women and girls via her teaching career. Minnie’s death evokes the danger of factory work in the early twentieth century—when there were fewer regulations—while Lily’s response is in keeping with her belief in the power of self-reliance over fate.
Lily’s new haircut makes her feel modern and flapper-like, and attracts the attention of Ted Conover, a former boxer turned traveling vacuum-cleaner salesman. Despite Ted being “a bit of a huckster,” Lily falls for him and the two begin dating. Lily partakes in her first glass of champagne and cigarette, and Ted also teaches her how to swim. After six weeks Ted proposes with a flashy-looking diamond ring, and the two marry in a Catholic Church. Lily enjoys married life, and the two live frugally. Ted encourages Lily to “dream big” about her future.
In the 1920s flappers were young women who flaunted societal expectations of how their gender should behave. Lily has long done this on the ranch, and her independence now asserts itself in the city in a new way. Her sense that Ted is a “huckster” foreshadows his indiscretion. Nevertheless, he exposes Lily to a lifestyle she was sheltered from on the ranch.
Ted is often away for work, but Lily does not mind because she is so busy with her own job and school. She receives her high school diploma at age twenty-six and begins looking for a better job. While Ted is on the road, Lily is hit by a car when crossing the street. Falling from horses taught her to take a fall, however, and she is fine. Nevertheless, the man driving the car insists on taking her to the hospital.
Lily continues to be dedicated to bettering herself and her lot in life. Though unable to predict what the future holds, her background has prepared her to handle whatever setbacks or literal falls come her way.
At the hospital Lily calls Ted’s office, introducing herself as his wife and asking how to reach him on the road. Ted’s coworker tells Lily he is not on the road and that his wife’s name is Margaret. Lily rushes out of the hospital and heads to Ted’s office, where she waits until she spots him leaving for the day. She stealthily follows him back to another apartment, where she knocks on the door and is greeted by a tired-looking woman Margaret. Despite her urge to confront Ted, Lily does not want to hurt Margaret or their many children and pretends to be with the census.
Lily’s boldness manifests itself despite her distress at the revelation of Ted’s indiscretions. Because they live in a man’s world, both Lily and Margaret will have to pay the price for Ted’s behavior. This is a reality Lily recognizes and which shapes her decision not to confront Ted’s wife. When men break the rules, women are often the ones who suffer.
The next morning, Lily finds that Ted has nearly drained their joint bank account. She packs her gun in her purse and confronts him at his office, beating him with her purse. Ted breaks down in tears and insists that he loves Lily and has destroyed her life, but Lily will have none of it; she asserts that Ted does not “have what it takes” to destroy her. She walks out, slamming her purse against the office door so hard that the glass shatters.
Throughout the novel, Lily will confront men who cross her with her pistol—her way of asserting her own power in the face of a sexist society. Her assertion that Ted cannot destroy her reflects her deep strength of character and is in keeping with the self-reliance she has been developing throughout the book.
Lily is angry but knows she will survive. She reflects again on the inability to predict the future, and how everything can change in an instant. Looking out at the lake, she decides it is time to return to the ranch. She is able to get her marriage annulled, but does not press charges against Ted, understanding that his going to prison would just make life even harder for his wife and children. She does, however, write a letter to Margaret explaining what happened. Lily tries to sell her engagement ring, but the jeweler tells her it is fake.
This scene again reflects the fact that women are often the victims of men’s bad behavior, a reality Lily refuses to contribute to. She will later retell the story of Ted’s fake ring upon giving a string of fake pearls to her daughter, asserting that finery is arbitrary and what really matters is the character behind it.
Lily applies to the Arizona state teachers’ college in Flagstaff and works multiple jobs while waiting to hear back. By the time she is accepted, she has saved enough for a year of college. She reflects that she is leaving Chicago having learned more about herself and others, including how easily people can steal your trust. While riding the train back, she also notes how little she feels she has accomplished in the past eight years; teaching during the war made her feel fulfilled in a way Chicago never could.
Living in Chicago has opened Lily’s eyes to life beyond the ranch, but she will never be completely suited to or comfortable in the city; for her, true freedom is found in teaching in rural schools. Her experience with Ted will also make her skeptical of the suave Rex Walls later in the novel. Though she has been hardened, she continues to value hard work and self-reliance above all, and to assume that these virtues can overcome any obstacle.