The story is narrated by Katie, a young girl who was born to Japanese parents in Iowa in 1951. Katie has a sister, Lynn, who is four years older than she. As the story begins Katie recalls some of her earliest memories. When she was five, she and Lynn were playing outside, and Lynn rescued her from an aggressive dog by pulling its tail. Katie ran home but the dog started to attack Lynn. Katie threw a milk bottle at it, and the dog was distracted. Lynn wrote in her diary that Katie had saved her, rather than the other way around.
Katie thinks Lynn is brave and also clever. Katie used to say that she would be rich and buy their parents seven houses. At the moment, they live in a small, rented house. But Lynn tells Katie that first their parents will buy a house for the family. She has found their savings, $1,100, in hundred-dollar bills, under the refrigerator.
The girls’ parents own an Oriental grocery store but it goes out of business. Katie’s Uncle Katsuhisa, who worked in a poultry hatchery in Georgia, says he can get their father a job there. He can also get their mother a job in a poultry processing factory.
Uncle Katsuhisa drives his rickety old truck to Iowa and to help them move to Georgia.
In a few deft strokes, the author creates the voice of the young Katie, who will tell the story. She also introduces the main characters and sketches their personalities and mannerisms, all from point of view of the child Katie. These are Katie’s mother and father and her Uncle Katsuhisa. In particular the reader learns of Katie’s relationship with her elder sister, Lynn. Katie learns so much from her sister and looks up to her.
The first chapter also sketches the backgrounds of these Japanese immigrants to the United States. The adults were born in the United States but were sent to Japan for their education, after which they returned to the United States. They are bilingual and familiar with American culture but also they stand out because they are Japanese in a part of the country—first Iowa and then Georgia—where most people are white.
One of the themes of the story is economic insecurity and poverty, and this is suggested in this chapter by the fact that the Oriental foods store the Takeshimas own in Iowa goes out of business. They must rely on a family connection in the South in order to survive.