When Jeanette was a girl, she writes, she lived, like most people, with her mother and father. Her mother was combative, devout, and saw the world in black-and-white. Jeanette, who is adopted, was brought into her mother’s home to join her in a “tag match against the rest of the world.” Jeanette’s childhood is full of rigorous daily prayer, and she spends most of her time assisting her mother, who is very involved with their Evangelist church.
When she is very young, Jeanette meets a gypsy woman who foretells that she will never marry and will never be able to be still. Jeanette is more curious about than haunted by the woman’s prediction and begins wondering at an early age what her future will hold. Jeanette peppers the story of her childhood with fanciful interludes: tales of her own invention which mirror whatever she is going through at a certain point in her life. One story is of a beautiful woman who comes upon a hunchback in the woods. The hunchback wishes to die but has too much to complete—the woman offers to take on the hunchback’s responsibilities, and the hunchback promptly dies. This story reflects Jeanette’s servitude to her mother from an early age, and the ways in which all of Jeanette’s mother’s burdens became the young Jeanette’s own. Jeanette is prevented from going to school, and instead her mother brings her to daily sermons at church, some of which are frightening. Pastor Finch, a traveling evangelist, warns Jeanette’s congregation of the evils of demon possession, and how anyone—even the pure young Jeanette—could become a tool of the Devil. Jeanette learns to read from the Book of Deuteronomy, and though Jeanette longs to go to school, her mother insists it is a “breeding ground”—however, one day a letter from the government arrives, stating that if Jeanette does not begin attending school her mother will be sent to prison.
At school, Jeanette has a hard time fitting in. She knows that the way things are done in her church are not always right or correct—some years ago, as a young child, she went deaf due to a problem with her adenoids, but no one noticed, believing Jeanette to be in the throes of a divine episode—but in school, she cannot stop herself from spreading the gospel of evangelism every chance she gets, and crafting “disturbing” creative projects which terrify her classmates. Jeanette’s mother tells Jeanette that she has been “called to be apart” from her schoolmates and will one day find peace in her true calling as a missionary.
Jeanette’s mother’s devotion to the church results in tense and even angry relations with the “heathens” next door and a blind allegiance to the church’s many outreach endeavors. Jeanette’s mother requires her to stand on an orange box for hours in the rain, passing out pamphlets for their church, and when Jeanette’s pastor delivers a sermon on perfection, another illustrative story springs to Jeanette’s mind. She imagines the story of a prince who is so desperate to find the perfect wife that he beheads anyone who opposes his ideal that perfection can be achieved, ultimately beheading a kind, beautiful woman who he feels has deceived him into seeing her as flawless.
At fourteen, Jeanette begins to worry about men and women and the relationships between them. Jeanette fears that all men are beasts in disguise, and fears she will one day have to marry a beast, too. One day, while running errands downtown with her mother, Jeanette meets a beautiful young girl named Melanie. The two become close over the next several weeks as Jeanette repeatedly travels downtown to visit her new friend, and eventually Jeanette invites Melanie to church. Melanie is accepted into the fold, and the two begin spending more and more time together. Jeanette’s mother, sensing something is wrong, warns Jeanette of the perils of falling in love, and tells her not to ever let anyone touch her “down there.” That night, Jeanette and Melanie sleep together for the first time, and over the next few weeks they become absolutely inseparable. Jeanette worries that the two of them are engaged in “unnatural passion,” but Melanie reassures her that their love is pure. Jeanette tells yet another story, this time of a calm and happy festival banquet in a high-walled castle being stormed by angry rebels.
In a brief, lyrical interlude, Jeanette considers the relationship between time, fact, fiction, and history. She writes that people are more likely to believe history as fact rather than stories or fiction or memories, even though history is what is most often rewritten to accommodate the mistakes, embarrassments, and pain of the past.
One morning, Jeanette comes down to the parlor to find a woman from church, Mrs. White, cleaning the parlor. Her mother is not home. Jeanette takes the dog for a walk, and as she walks through town reflects on her attempts to explain her relationship with Melanie to her mother after her mother found them sleeping in the same bed together, as well as an “Awful Occasion” from her past in which Jeanette’s birth mother showed up to their house and tried to reclaim her. That night at Melanie’s, Jeanette tells Melanie that she loves her, but Melanie does not say the words back. The following morning at church, there is an ambush. The pastor and Jeanette’s mother reveal the girls’ relationship in front of the entire congregation and call them up to the pulpit to confess. Melanie repents and is taken away to be prayed over, but Jeanette does not. A woman from the congregation, Miss Jewsbury, invites the devastated and shell-shocked Jeanette over for a cup of tea, and reveals that Jeanette’s close friend, the elderly Elsie Norris (who had frequently allowed Jeanette and Melanie to stay together at her house) was the one who told Miss Jewsbury about the girls’ relationship. Miss Jewsbury comforts Jeanette and slowly begins stroking her, and soon the two are making love, though Jeanette is full of self-loathing and disgust.
The next morning Jeanette sneaks home and finds the parlor full of church elders as well as the pastor. They pray over her for more than twelve hours, and at the end of the night, Jeanette still refuses to repent. The pastor orders her mother to lock Jeanette in the parlor without food for three days, and her mother follows his command. During her time in isolation Jeanette hallucinates an orange demon, who warns her that if she forsakes him she’ll be destroyed by grief, though if she accepts him and keeps him around, her life will be difficult in a different way. The hungry, exhausted Jeanette decides to repent, but chooses to keep her demon, symbolically choosing to remain true to herself and to not deny her desires. Jeanette has Miss Jewsbury drive her to Melanie’s family’s house nearby to say farewell, and Jeanette and Melanie spend one final, tearful night together. When Jeanette returns home she is struck down with a fever, which her mother interprets as sin leaving Jeanette’s body. Jeanette’s mother burns all of the letters Jeanette and Melanie sent one another while Jeanette is convalescing, and Jeanette, feeling deeply betrayed, knows that her relationship with her mother is beyond repair.
By summertime, Jeanette is feeling like her old self again. She joins her church on a revival mission to a seaside town, and strikes up a friendship with a pretty girl from the church named Katy. Months later, at Christmastime, Jeanette and Katy are assisting Jeanette’s mother with the Nativity play when Melanie walks back into church in the middle of it. That night, Melanie calls on Jeanette, and attempts to rekindle their friendship, but the traumatized Jeanette pushes her away. Melanie follows Jeanette all over town, and Jeanette cannot escape her feelings of shame and longing. Katy, sensing that something is wrong, invites Jeanette to spend the weekend camping in her backyard in her parents’ caravan. Jeanette accepts, and the two make love on their first night together. As their sweet and reciprocal love affair unfolds, the girls spend time together at church and Bible study and take comfort in the spiritual dimension of their relationship. Melanie returns to town once more, a year later, to announce that she is getting married to an army man. When Melanie introduces her fiancé to the congregation, he leans into Jeanette and whispers that he “forgives” both Jeanette and Melanie for their transgression, and Jeanette spits in his face.
Jeanette’s mother angrily throws Jeanette out of the house. Jeanette has finally been caught with Katy when the two attempted to spend a week together at their church’s guest house in the town of Morecambe, and Jeanette, not wanting Katy to be forced through an exorcism the way she was, has taken the fall. In the wake of all that has transpired, Jeanette has decided to renounce the church and her dream of becoming a missionary. Jeanette then tells a story about Sir Perceval, the youngest Knight of the Round Table and King Arthur’s favorite. Perceval sets off from Camelot in search of something, leaving the devastated Arthur behind and alone. In church one day, Jeanette’s mother and the pastor announce that women will no longer be allowed to preach or teach Bible study in their church—Jeanette’s corruption, they believe, is the result of her trying to take on a “man’s role” as a preacher and a religious educator, and they hope that if women are prevented from preaching and teaching, no one else will be corrupted by homosexuality. Meanwhile Sir Perceval, lost in the woods, dreams again and again of his King, but each time he dreams of reaching out to touch him he wakes with thorns in his hands or poison ivy in his face. The next morning, the pastor calls on Jeanette and explains his intent to subject her to yet another exorcism, but Jeanette refuses to undergo it, and announces her intent to leave the church. Her mother, incensed, casts her out of the house. On her last morning at home, Jeanette is amazed when she wakes up to find that it is just another ordinary morning, and not the chaotic Judgement Day she had imagined it would be.
Jeanette then tells the story of a young girl named Winnet who becomes lost traveling through a great wood. A sorcerer offers her food and shelter, and though Winnet is wary of him, she agrees to a bet—if he can guess her name, she will be his, and if he cannot, he must help her out of the woods. The sorcerer guesses Winnet’s name and takes her back to his castle, where she quickly forgets her past life and comes to believe that she is the sorcerer’s daughter, and has always lived in his castle. As Winnet makes friends with the villagers who live in the town surrounding the castle, she meets a strange boy and begins a friendship with him. At the annual harvest festival, she brings her new friend to meet her father, but the sorcerer, enraged that Winnet has come to love another, banishes the boy. Winnet begs her father to let her stay, but he tells her that if she wants to remain in the village she will not be allowed to live in the castle, and will have to work as a goatherd. One of the sorcerer’s magic ravens urges Winnet to leave lest her life be “destroyed by grief” and her heart turn to stone. As Winnet prepares to leave the castle, the sorcerer creeps into her room disguised as a mouse and ties an invisible thread around her coat button.
Jeanette is working odd jobs in town, driving an ice cream van and helping out at a local funeral parlor. One day, making the rounds in her ice cream van, Jeanette passes Elsie’s house and decides to stop in to visit her old friend. She finds that the parlor is full of people from church, and she learns that Elsie is dead. Jeanette begs to attend the funeral, but as an outcast, she is forbidden. At the funeral parlor, though, Jeanette’s boss tells her that Elsie’s funeral will be held there, and she will need to help him serve the food for the wake. Jeanette reluctantly agrees, knowing that if anyone from her church sees her, there will be chaos. Jeanette is able to lay food out surreptitiously and unrecognized in the beginning, but at the end when her boss calls her out to serve ice cream to the mourners, chaos indeed erupts, and her mother publicly disowns Jeanette.
Winnet, lost in the woods again, is taken in by a woman from a nearby village and brought back to the new town. She struggles to learn the language spoken there, and is continually told by the villagers of a magical, faraway town where buildings stretch to the sky. Winnet dreams of leaving the village, and begins building a boat that will take her far away. On the day she leaves, Winnet is full of fear, but knows she must set out on her own.
Jeanette has left her hometown and is living in a big city, but she feels her past has caught up with her. Her friends often ask when she last saw her mother, and if she ever thinks of going home again, and Jeanette admits that she thinks of home all the time. She cannot deny where she came from, and she decides to go home for the Christmas holidays. When she arrives home, small things have changed: her mother has acquired an electric organ and radio and the church’s Morecambe guest house, Jeanette learns, has fallen into disrepute and disrepair. Her mother, however, treats her as if nothing has transpired between them, and Jeanette wonders if her mother has forgotten why she left, or if she ever even really left at all.
Sir Perceval, weary from his travels, stays the night in the castle of a warm and welcoming host who questions him about his journey. Perceval is embarrassed to admit that he left Camelot in search of something holy and perfect that he could keep all to himself, but he has been unable to find it and misses his home and his King very dearly. Feeling selfish and ashamed, Perceval goes to bed, and dreams that he is a spider hanging from a web. A passing raven cuts the thread with its beak, and Perceval-the-spider drops to the forest floor and scuttles away.
Jeanette stays with her parents through Christmas. More bad news arrives about the Morecambe guest house, and Jeanette realizes that her mother is struggling every day to keep her religious community together as it falls apart at the seams. Jeanette watches as her mother, having just come home from church, immediately sits down at her broadcast radio, frantically trying to connect with other Christians elsewhere in England.