The family drives west in their Oldsmobile, which breaks down regularly and can’t go over twenty-five miles per hour. They often take back roads to avoid tolls and sightsee. It takes them two months to get to Welch, West Virginia, deep in the Appalachian Mountains.
The family pulls up to an old house and meets Dad’s mother, Erma, as well as Grandpa and Uncle Stanley. Uncle Stanley hugs and kisses Jeannette more than she would like. She thinks her relatives are strange and look nothing like Dad. The family sleeps in the basement, a dank, cinderblock room with a coal stove and one bed for the kids to share.
When Mom takes the kids to enroll in school, she doesn’t have their records but assures the principal that they are gifted. The principal makes the kids answer rapid-fire questions, but the children can’t understand his Appalachian accent, and the principal can’t understand them. The principal places them in remedial classes for students with learning disabilities.
In school, the kids struggle to assimilate. Jeannette cannot answer questions in history class like she used to because the class focuses only on West Virginia. On the playground, a black girl named Dinitia Hewitt smiles at Jeannette, which Jeannette interprets as a friendly gesture, until she realizes the smile is malicious. In English class, the teacher teases Jeannette for the incident in the principal’s office, insinuating that she thinks she’s superior to others. While the class laughs at Jeannette, Dinitia stabs her in the back with a pencil. For weeks, Dinitia and her friends beat up Jeannette at recess and make fun of her ragged clothing.
One day while walking in town, Jeannette comes across a small dog tormenting a little boy, and she helps him get home on piggy back. The boy happens to be Dinitia’s neighbor, and Dinitia stops tormenting Jeannette. Soon, the girls start doing homework together, but Erma derides Jeannette for having a black friend. She blames the black people for Welch’s decline. Eventually, Jeannette snaps and tells Erma not to use racial slurs. Erma calls her ungrateful and sends her to the basement without dinner. Mom tells Jeannette she has to be polite and show Erma compassion. Jeannette knows that they would be homeless without Erma, and now understands that desperation breeds hypocrisy.
Mom and Dad go to Phoenix to retrieve the rest of their things. While they’re away, Erma drinks often, hits the children with serving spoons, and tells them about her hard life as an orphan. One afternoon, Jeannette hears Brian crying and walks in on Erma molesting him. Jeannette and Lori confront Erma, which leads to a physical fight. Erma banishes them to the basement, not allowing them to eat or use the restroom. Uncle Stanley occasionally brings dinner, fearing Erma’s wrath.