The novel begins as Estrella and her family drive down the road, crowded into an old car. She spies a barn in the distance and wonders if it is their destination. Estrella, one of five children—including her brothers Ricky and Arnulfo and twin sisters Perla and Cookie—lives with her mother Petra and her mother’s boyfriend Perfecto. Nearby, two young boys, cousins Alejo and Gumecindo, watch the family from their perch in a peach orchard. They are stealing fruit to sell in the market. Estrella and her siblings explore the barn, which has a spiritual feel.
Estrella remembers traveling with her family. When they stop for a break, Petra finds large oranges in an orchard. Estrella brings one to her father and he peels it. Ultimately, Estrella’s father leaves, pushing the family to the brink of starvation. Eventually they are forced to become migrant workers, living in temporary camps. Petra struggles to feed the family, while Estrella helps care for her siblings.
Alejo spots a young boy by the barn with a cleft palate. The boy plays until he falls on a piece of glass, cutting himself. Alejo makes hand shadow puppets to calm the boy’s crying. After her father left, Estrella found Perfecto’s toolbox by the door. The implements inside were frustrating and confusing, just like the letters in school. Perfecto, trying to appease Estrella, showed he what each tool does. Realizing the power of Perfecto’s implements, Estrella committed herself to learning to read.
During a previous harvest, Estrella’s family worked in a tomato farm. There she met a girl named Maxine, a member of the Devridges, a family known for starting trouble. Maxine, who was illiterate but had a collection of comic books, asked Estrella to read to her. One day the girls met to read in the fields. As they grew increasingly thirsty, they came to a ditch, but did not drink as Estrella heard it was filled with pesticides. Teasing, Maxine said that Estrella’s mother was having sex with Perfecto. Furious, Estrella pulled Maxine’s hair, starting a fight. Afterwards, the foreman, wary of families fighting, forced Estrella’s family to move, firing them.
In the present, Alejo perches on a peach tree and watches Estrella wash a watermelon. When she drops it in the river, she undresses and wades in to find it. Alejo watches, spellbound. In the morning, Alejo gives Estrella’s family a bag of peaches, welcoming them to the camp. Petra gives him some beans and tortillas in return.
Working in the fields picking grapes, Estrella reflects that she is nothing like the smiling woman on the raisin boxes. She slowly, painfully cuts grapes from the vines and spreads them out to dry. In the same field, Alejo thinks of his grandmother, who struggled to ensure he could attend school. Alejo spots the young boy with a harelip and waves, but he ignores him. The trucks arrive, honking to signal the end of the workday. Alejo and the other workers climb aboard, but Estrella walks home, hoping to stop at a playground.
At the playground Estrella watches a game of baseball. When the field’s bright lights snap on at dusk, Estrella panics, thinking the border patrol must be looking for her. She flees to the bungalow. Petra tells her daughter never to let people “make [her] feel [she] did a crime for picking the vegetables they’ll be eating for dinner” (63). Petra reminds her daughter that their birth certificates are “under the feet of Jesus,” referring to the small statue she keeps mounted to the wall (63).
During an eclipse, Estrella and Alejo sit on a fence, sharing Alejo’s bottle of cola. Estrella shows Alejo how to blow over the bottle spout and produce music. After leaving, Estrella finds Perfecto, who asks for help tearing down the old barn. Estrella thinks tearing down the barn is unfair, reflecting on how things and people get used and then discarded. Despite his pleading, Estrella refuses to help.
As Alejo and Gumecindo are collecting peaches in the orchard, the plane swoops down. Gumecindo runs, but Alejo is caught in a rain of pesticide. Poisoned, Alejo struggles to breathe and collapses in the dirt, smashing his face against a tree on the way down. He begs God for forgiveness, imagining the spraying is punishment for stealing peaches. Alejo thinks of being pulled into a tar pit and slowly asphyxiated.
Perfecto yearns to travel back to his real home. He thinks of his ex-wife and their stillborn first son. He decides to tear down the barn, with or without help. He plans to use the money to travel back home. He fails to tell Petra of his plans.
Later in the week the weather hovers around 109 degrees, making work even more brutal. Estrella finds a patch of shade by a truck and lies down. Alejo joins her. He talks, explaining how plants and animals are converted into oil and gasoline. Alejo kisses Estrella’s palm. Afterwards, Estrella runs to the barn to think.
Petra invites the deeply ill Alejo to stay with the family, so she can try to heal him. Perfecto tries to prevent this, fearing the family cannot support another person. Petra uses indigenous healing techniques to try and cure him. He spends his days falling in and out of consciousness.
Petra remembers walking with the children to the corner store, where she carefully checked the price of each food item. A strange man helped her choose cloves of garlic. As he left the store, the man, a younger Perfecto, gave the children ice chips to suck on.
Lying in bed Petra overhears Alejo and Estrella in the next room flirting. She worries for her daughter, sensing that her feelings for Alejo could be the beginning of a hard life, much like her own. Petra wonders if the baby in her stomach will be affected by the pesticides in the fields.
Alejo grows weaker, only communicating when around Estrella. Petra feels guilty for being unable to help him. Outside, Petra vomits her breakfast, feeling weaker. Perfecto and Estrella discuss Alejo’s worsening condition. Estrella offers to help tear down the barn if Perfecto will agree to take her friend to a clinic. Later the family attempts to take Alejo to a clinic but the car becomes stuck in the mud. Fortunately some fellow laborers returning from the field help them free the vehicle.
The family arrives at the poorly maintained trailer where the clinic is housed. As they enter the clinic, Perfecto notes broken things he could fix in exchange for service. A pretty, well-coiffed nurse enters the room. She is surprised to find people waiting and repeatedly checks her watch, annoyed. The nurse asks a few questions about Alejo before weighing him. Watching the scene, Estrella concludes that she cannot rely on God, only herself. She helps Alejo lay down on the examining table, where the nurse measures his blood pressure and temperature. Petra waits anxiously, concerned about the cost of the visit. The nurse informs Estrella that Alejo likely has dysentery and should be taken to the hospital in Corazon. Petra and Perfecto argue that it is not their responsibility to continue caring for Alejo. Hurt, Estrella reminds Perfecto of their bargain about the barn and insists they take him.
The nurse charges the family ten dollars, but agrees to accept the $9.07 Perfecto has in his wallet. Estrella attempts to barter Perfecto’s services as she realizes they will need all their remaining money to buy gasoline for the trip to the hospital. The nurse refuses to accept anything but money. In a moment of clarity, Estrella realizes that the family’s labor makes the nurse’s middle-class life possible. Energized, she concludes that “the nurse owed them as much as they owed her” (148). The family walks out defeated. Estrella runs to the car for Perfecto’s crowbar and demands her money back from a terrified nurse. Estrella takes precisely the amount they gave the clinic.
The family buys gasoline at a nearby station before heading for the hospital. Alejo questions Estrella’s actions, wanting to know if she hurt the nurse. Estrella explains she was forced to act, disappointed that Alejo hasn’t understood her sacrifice for him. Once the family arrives, Estrella leaves Alejo in the hospital.
The family returns home. Scared that the nurse will call the police, Perfecto contemplates leaving that night. He stands by his car, quietly crying. As she puts the children to bed, Petra wonders why she didn’t attempt to stop Estrella. She realizes that her daughter cannot be stopped.
Disturbed by Perfecto’s silence and apparent crying, Petra enters the bungalow to pray. Petra kneels before her statue of Jesus. Underneath the statue, Petra keeps a delicate doily crocheted by her grandmother and the family’s paperwork. She glances through all her documents. As she stands, Petra unsteadily braces herself against her makeshift altar, her legs weak. She accidentally knocks her statue to the floor, where Jesus’ head breaks off. Petra feels her entire world is falling apart.
Estrella wakes and opens a window, seeing Perfecto crying by the truck. She is reminded of how scared Alejo was in the hospital; he had begged her to stay with him. It occurs to her that she may “never see him alive again” (170). Outside, Estrella grabs a lantern and runs to the barn. Noticing a trapdoor to the roof, Estrella slowly climbs the hanging chain to the hayloft. With great effort, Estrella pushes open the barn door and climbs onto the roof.
She steps out into a beautiful night, noting the stars shining in the sky. She walks slowly to the edge of the roof, feeling the unstable structure shake beneath her. Unafraid, Estrella enjoys the cool wind on her face. She stands still at the edge of the barn, like an angel “on the verge of faith” (176). Estrella believes in her own power, confident she can “summon home all those who strayed” (176)