The novel starts by presenting the Smolinsky family, a Jewish family living on the brick of poverty. The reason behind this is that the father of the family, Reb Smolinsky refuses to work and choses instead to stay all day inside and read holly books. The situation is ameliorated when Mrs. Smolinsky rents a room in their house to earn some money but in the end it is not enough. When the landlord comes to collect the rent, Reb punches the woman after she slammed one of Rob’s holly books and so the youngest in the family, Sara, is let with the task of earning money to sustain her family. She does this by selling herring on the streets and the family survives until Reb is released from the prison.
The other daughters in the family are unable to find jobs and one of the daughter named Mashah decides to spend her money not on food and other necessities but on clothes and other things to make herself look better.
Bessie falls in love with a man named Berel Bernstein who agrees to marry her even though she doesn’t have any type of dowry. While Bessie’s mother and sisters are existed for her, Reb is against having his daughter married because he knows that he will lose and income source if Bessie leaves. Reb then talks with Berel and agrees to let the two marry but only if Berel will pay for the wedding himself and if he will also set up a business for Reb. Berel, seeing how Reb tries to profit out of him, asks Bessie to marry him in secret but she refuses so they break up.
Because Reb refuses to accept any of the suitors brought home by the girls, he ends up finding the girls suitors he thinks are suitable and marries them off. Unfortunately, the marriages end up being unsuccessful and Bessie and Mashah have to endure poverty and violent husbands for the rest of their lives.
Reb decides to invest the money he got from one of the marriages into a business despite being warned not to by his wife. The family loses again all its money and it is up to Sara and Mrs. Smolinsky to try and sustain the family financially. Also, seeing how her sisters’ marriages turned out, Sara makes a promise to herself to not let her father control her life and to be the one to choose whom she wants to marry.
Living in the same house becomes difficult for Sara as her father spends his days doing nothing and criticizing Sara and Mrs. Smolinsky work in the shop but unfortunately the business fails and the family has to face poverty again. Not being able to take it anymore, Sara leaves her parents’ home and tries to make it on her own.
Sara first thinks of moving in with one of her sisters but she doesn’t when she hears about the hardship her siblings have to endure. Instead, Sara moves to New York where she starts learning how to become a teacher. In New York, Sara rents a little room and works during the night to pay for her rent and studies. She tries to make friends but finds quickly that the Americans find it hard to accept Sara as being a part of their group.
Sara feels lonelier as time passes by and when she is visited by Max, a friend of one of her sister’s, she thinks about marrying him as a way of escaping loneliness. The couple doesn’t marry because Sara realizes that Max’s dreams for the future and hers are completely different so she decides to break up with him. Hearing that Sara refused to get married, Reb gets furious and disowns his daughter.
Sara graduates soon after and with the money she won during an essay writing contest she rents for herself a bigger and cleaner apartment. Unfortunately, Sara’s happiness is short lives as she soon finds out that her mother got sick and died. Before dying, Mrs. Smolisnky makes her daughter promise to take care of their father but the girls get angry when they find that Reb married almost immediately another woman named Mrs. Feinstein. Reb’s new wife is only interested in the money left behind by Mrs. Smolinsky and when she realizes that Reb is not as rich as she hoped he would be, she starts pressuring Sara and her sisters to give them money and sustain them financially. Sara however refuses to do it and she distances herself from her father.
Enraged, Mrs. Feinstein sends a letter to the principal of the school where Sara was working. The letter however only brings Sara and the headmaster together and they soon start to date. Animated by her newfound happiness and moved by an instance where Sara saw Reb in the gutter selling gum, Sara and her new husband Hugo decide to take Reb with them and let him live with them.
The novel ends with Sara and Hugo returning home, talking about their future together.