Maya grows up feeling like an unwanted child. She feels ugly and wishes she could turn into a beautiful white girl. The specter of the KKK and racism haunts every aspect of her life. To top it off, unlike everyone else in Stamps, she doesn't have an accent and won't eat pigtails. She just doesn't belong—sounds pretty wretched to us. It's time to get out (and luckily, Daddy Bailey has the car to do so).
With her father's arrival, Maya finally has the family she has been longing for. She gains a beautiful mother, another grandmother, and some protective uncles. Her new family even has money. Now she can eat fancy deli-meat, jelly beans, and popcorn. Sweet. Sure, the kids at school are a bit slow, but overall this family deal is pretty sweet.
Suddenly, everything falls apart. Mr. Freeman rapes Maya, and all of her hope is crushed. When Mr. Freeman is killed after his trial, Maya feels so guilty that she stops speaking. No one else seems to understand what's going on with her, so her new family ships her back to Stamps.
Everything seemed to be going great, right? She had a mother and a father, and she even she felt familial love. But all of that is lost in the rape. She learns that those who love you can hurt you, and she loses her new family just as suddenly as she gained them. Now she is doubly unwanted.
Since this is a coming-of-age story, Maya's road to independence occupies a large portion of the book. Maya and Bailey were thick as thieves but they begin to go their own separate ways after St. Louis, and they both create relationships outside of the family. Mrs. Flowers is the first big influence on Maya, getting her out of her year-long funk. Then Louise Kendricks becomes Maya's first friend. Finally, Maya graduates and moves to San Francisco.
Maya's trip to Mexico sets off the biggest test of her growing independence. It's a trial by fire, and it seems like everything goes wrong. She has to make her way home from Mexico alone, she stands up to Dolores alone, and she is homeless and (obviously) alone. By the end of these chapters, she is a totally new person. She didn't die, so we guess she passed the test.
Traditionally, rags to riches stories end when the protagonist becomes a prince or princess or gains a huge fortune. This is not quite the case for Maya. There is no Prince Charming and there is no wedding—but there is a baby. Maya's baby helps her feel the love she has been looking for and gives her that family she always wanted. Maya's "happily ever after" is the image of her son sleeping peacefully through the night.