Opal and her older half-sister, Jacquie Red Feather, are doing homework at the kitchen table one afternoon in January of 1970 when their mother, Vicky, comes home and tells them to pack: they are moving from their small East Oakland home to the island of Alcatraz with a group of other Native Americans. Opal remembers the last time their mother came home and told them, in a hurry, that they were moving: she’d been beaten up by a boyfriend. That time, on the bus to their new house, Opal had asked her mother about Native names, and Vicky had explained that Native last names were designed to “keep the power with the dads.”
Vicky is a reckless wanderer who often sweeps her daughter up in her delusions and adventures. Jacquie and Opal are used to this lifestyle (if exhausted by it), and though they’re beginning to grow skeptical of their mother’s whims, they still absorb and internalize her thoughts, wisdom, and point of view.
Opal packs lightly for the trip, taking with her only two outfits and her teddy bear, whose name is Two Shoes. Vicky instructs Opal and Jacquie to say goodbye to their house as they walk out the door—the front of it is covered in eviction notices. On the bus, there are hardly any other riders, and though Opal longs to ask her mother about where they’re going, she knows her mother doesn’t like it when the girls talk on the bus. Opal can’t resist, though, and asks her mother where they’re going and why. Vicky replies that they’re going to live with the Indians of All Tribes in the cells of Alcatraz prison as a protest against the ways in which Indian people are kept in metaphorical “cells” in larger society.
The real-life occupation of Alcatraz Island was meant to protest the treatment of Native Americans across the country under the ongoing Indian Termination Policy. By making Vicky, Opal, and Jacquie a part of this protest, Orange is rooting the story in a larger historical significance.
That night, on the island, Opal and Jacquie eat watery beef stew in front of a large bonfire while their mother smokes and makes friends with other Indian women. Opal and Jacquie enjoy themselves, and fall asleep happy by the fire. Vicky moves them inside the prison building, where everyone is sleeping in cells, and the sisters sleep soundly on an Indian blanket.
The first night on the island is new and exciting, and all three women believe that they are truly a part of something greater than themselves.
Jacquie, who is eighteen, makes more friends more quickly than the twelve-year-old Opal does, and starts running around with a group of teens. Opal mostly stays with her mother, attending meetings where groups of Natives work on plans for staying on the island long-term. When Opal feels lonely, she draws comfort from talking to her teddy bear, Two Shoes, and imagines long conversations with him in which Two Shoes reveals the origin of the name teddy bear and its roots with Teddy Roosevelt, who was said to famously spare a “scraggly old hungry bear” on a hunt, but in actuality slit the bear’s throat out of “mercy.” Two Shoes “tells” Opal that it’s important to “know about the history of your people.” Opal feels that she has had the same conversations she has with Two Shoes with her mother.
This passage suggests that when Opal is speaking to Two Shoes and listening to what the bear has to say, she’s really just replaying conversations she’s had with her mother. Vicky, distracted and erratic, isn’t able to give her daughter the attention she wants and needs—and so Opal uses Two Shoes as a way of feeling connected to something, even when she’s lonely or down.
One afternoon, Opal leaves Two Shoes behind some rocks and goes looking for Jacquie. She finds her with the group of teens—Jacquie is drunk, and introduces Opal excitedly to an older boy named Harvey. Opal spots another younger boy standing near the water tossing rocks into the ocean, and starts talking to him. He tells her that he is miserable to be stuck on Alcatraz with his family and wants to go back home. Opal asks his name, and he introduces himself as Rocky.
Things are slowly taking a turn on Alcatraz. Though in the beginning, Opal felt excited about being there, her loneliness is taking hold of her—and she’s learning that others, like Rocky, are equally unhappy there.
Opal and Rocky go joyriding with Jacquie and some of the other older kids on a transport boat stolen from docks on the other side of the island. They’re eventually caught by some elders and forced to return the boat to shore. Jackie and Harvey immediately scramble away, while the shell-shocked Opal and Rocky stay on the boat holding hands for a little while. Soon, Opal hears a woman screaming. She realizes the screams are Jacquie’s, and goes off in search of her sister. She finds Jacquie throwing rocks at Harvey, and as Opal looks at Harvey’s face, she realizes he and Rocky must be brothers. Jacquie leads Opal away, back to the prison, ignoring Opal’s questions about what Harvey did to her to make her mad. Inside the prison, they find Vicky passed out drunk in her cell.
Things really start to take a turn for the worse after Jacquie’s drunken but joyful connection to Harvey is severed by an incident of violence—and it becomes clear that Vicky, having succumbed to her own addiction, is not able or willing to prioritize her daughters’ safety and happiness.
Things on the island begin to deteriorate. There are no supplies, scarce food, and zero electricity, and Opal notices that people are getting more drunk more often. Vicky assures the girls that she’ll get them off the island, but Opal doesn’t trust her mother anymore. One morning, Vicky takes Opal up to the lighthouse at the edge of the island, and Vicky blurts out the fact that she has cancer. Opal runs away from her mother to look for Two Shoes, but when she finds him he is weathered and scraggly, and she abandons him on the rocks.
Two Shoes’ deterioration mirrors the physical and emotional deterioration Vicky is experiencing, too. Opal sees her mother in a new light, and cannot go back to idolizing her and hanging on her every word—just as she cannot go back to loving the worn, beat-up Two Shoes.
Back on the mainland, Opal, Jacquie, and Vicky go to stay with Vicky’s “adopted brother” Ronald, whom the girls have never met. Vicky tells the girls that Ronald is a medicine man, and she insists that he can heal her even as she refuses traditional medical treatment. Soon, Vicky is dead, and on a visit to her gravesite, Jacquie reveals to Opal that she is pregnant with Harvey’s baby. Jacquie wants to have an abortion, but Opal begs her to reconsider, insisting that the baby is now part of Jacquie’s “story.” The two girls walk home from the cemetery in silence, holding hands.
In the wake of their mother’s death, Opal and Jacquie only have each other. The painful thing they’ve experienced in the past—and continue to endure in the present—are all making them into the women they’ll become, and though Jacquie is full of hesitation and regret, Opal believes that they should honor even the painful parts of who they are and where they’ve been.