Embarking upon a yearly summer odyssey with her father from their home in Virginia across the country to Minnesota, Nellie Kincaid has no idea that this trip will be any different from the others: gathering with her mother’s relatives at the family cottage for a Fourth of July celebration, culminating in a Labor Day picnic.
Nellie’s mother is white, her father black; by Labor Day, her father’s relatives will arrive at the camp, everyone mixing together for the final party of the summer. At fifteen, Nellie is caught up in adolescent angst, struggling with her mixed racial parentage and a suspicion of her parent’s impending divorce.
Although her brothers have stayed home with their mother, Nellie and her father plan the customary visits with other relatives and friends along the way after they pick up her cousin, Jess, in West Virginia. Jess is sixteen, outspoken and rebellious, due to meet up with her own father at the cabin, leaving with him to live in California after Labor Day. With little direction in her young life, Jess postures with false bravado, acting older than her years.
When the girls are allowed to take a bus on the last leg of the journey, Nellie’s real engagement with the world begins. After missing their bus, they argue and separate, each hitchhiking to the cabin, an eye-opening a dangerous adventure for Nellie. While Jess blithely encounters the unknown, Nellie quickly perceives that skin color changes the dynamic considerably. Reunited on the road, the girls make an unsteady peace.
While hitchhiking, Nellie meets a nineteen-year old Indian, Dallas, who comes to her rescue after a harrowing encounter on the highway. Her reaction to Dallas is both confused and excited; Nellie has a unique opportunity to see the world from her new friend’s perspective. This alienated young man teaches Nllie about the complex issues she will face in a half-white, half-black world, a topic to which she has already given considerable thought: “The only time I feel black is in a room full of white people and the only time I feel white is in a room full of black people.”
As summer turns to fall and they remain at the cabin, Nellie is caught in a familiar conundrum of mixed-race heritage and her place in the grand scheme of things. But there are dramatic changes afoot: a disappointing defection, destruction of the old, the building of the new, redefined family dynamics. Nellie learns a new appreciation for a father who shares his personal history as a black man in a society that draws color before character distinctions.
Through loss and a shared act that is both brave and foolish, Jess and Nellie develop the bonds that will carry them through the years. Nellie’s relationships with cousins, attraction to the opposite sex, acceptance of family members, white and black, familiar and unfamiliar, are transformed in this coming-of-age story that launches the young woman into her future. Her childish view of the world cast aside, Nellie anticipates her life: “I am not a. I am not. I am.”