It’s 1961 and Peyton, a young girl in her last year of middle school in Lytton, Georgia, is a fairly miserable little thing. She is one of three members of The Losers Club, the other two members being her best friends, a younger black boy who has a clubbed foot and a 34 year old man who lives with and takes care of her mother.
Peyton has grown up knowing she killed her mother at birth and has had to bear the awful pain she brings to her father because of it. Peyton’s life consists of struggling through her days, trying to keep embarrassing situations to a minimum, and after school meeting with her club where they out-do each other comparing their embarrassments. Peyton’s only living relatives are her father, her father’s crazy mother, his brother and his brother’s wife, Augusta.
Augusta is a mean and extremely prejudiced person, which is not lacking in this small Southern town. Then one day Peyton’s cousin Nora shows up. Nora is Peyton’s mother’s younger cousin whom she never even knew existed, so Peyton is determined not to like her. Nora is free spirited, challenging everything she doesn't agree with, especially segregation of any kind. Peyton at once finds Nora’s eccentricities both disagreeable and yet compelling. Before long Peyton is drawn into the being that is Nora and begins feeling love both for Nora and from her. Her father is happier than Peyton has ever seen him, he expresses opinions she never suspected he had and they begin feeling like a family.
When Peyton’s grandmother dies, Nora is just the support Peyton’s father needs. When Peyton is asked to give a speech at her graduation, Nora talks her into it and helps her write and practice it, promising to be in the wings when she gives it. When Peyton discovers a huge secret about Nora she promises to never reveal it, it’s something that would be unforgivable in the town’s eyes and would not only ruin Nora but also Peyton and her father. Peyton then reveals her secret to Nora about how she killed her mother which Nora quickly sets her straight on, it was a scandalous action of her mother's doing, which shatters Peyton’s picture of the mother she thought she knew.
Nora, being a free spirit, is beginning to feel the weight of people needing her, which usually pushes her to leave, always running from what she really wants, which is an anchor to ground her. When Nora does not show up for Peyton’s speech, Peyton is so angry and hurt that she later bares her soul of the secret Nora has to her father and Augusta in Nora’s presence. This results in the scandal being spread throughout the town and Nora taking off before the night is through.
With secrets shared and trusts broken Peyton learns as her father explains that people can only be what they are and that is human. To be human means you are never really safe or free, but to love one another is the most important thing in the world and they set off to find Nora and bring her back home.