Mary Alice takes the train to her Grandma Dowdel's town with her trunk of belongings and her cat Bootsie in tow.
Grandma Dowdel is at the station waiting for her, and they start to walk. As they go, Mary Alice observes the tiny town and how the few businesses open look like they're hurting from the recession.
Mary Alice figures they're going back to Grandma's house and is startled to find that she's being taken to the school so that she can register. Sheesh. Can't a girl even see her bedroom first?
Grandma takes Mary Alice into the basement of the school and introduces her to a man who is cleaning up down there. Mary Alice is so embarrassed…is Grandma really trying to enroll her in school by talking to the janitor?
But because times are tough, it turns out that the man sweeping up is actually the principal—Mr. Fluke. He's taken on quite a few rolls since the recession hit.
Mr. Fluke says that Mary Alice will be a junior here, and sends her to Miss Butler's classroom, where all the other students are sitting in old-fashioned school desks. They all turn to look at Mary Alice, and she feels some classic new girl anxiety.
When she sits down next to a girl named Mildred Burdick, she gets a serious glare and can tell she's not welcome here.
Mildred makes a fist under the desk to intimidate Mary Alice and calls her a "rich Chicago girl." Mary Alice retorts that if she were rich, she wouldn't have to be here right now—her parents could have kept her at home.
Then Mildred tells Mary Alice to give her a dollar, which Mary Alice definitely does not have on her. Another girl in class, Ina-Rae Gage, whispers that Mary Alice should just listen to Mildred because she's a scary bully. She already stole and ate Ina-Rae's lunch.
After school, Mildred doesn't let up. She gets on her big horse (seriously—she rides a big horse) and follows Mary Alice on her walk home, much to Mary Alice's horror.
When they reach the house, Grandma is standing on the porch as though she's waiting for them. She listens calmly as Mary Alice explains how Mildred is shaking her down for a dollar.
Grandma tells Mildred to tie up her horse outside, to take off her boots, and to come inside so that they can discuss the matter of this dollar.
When they sit down, Grandma sets down some food and makes conversation about Mildred's family—filling Mary Alice in about how Mildred's father is a horse thief and is in jail right now.
As Mildred is busy eating, Grandma slips outside for a moment and Mary Alice knows that she must be up to something.
But then she comes back and tells Mildred that she better get going—because she has a whole five miles travel in order to get home.
Mildred jumps up and realizes that her horse is gone because Grandma had untied it. And her boots have disappeared, too!
When Mildred goes running away from the house, Mary Alice tells Grandma that now she's going to get beat up at school.
But Grandma Dowdel sets her straight. Mildred won't be coming back to school because she won't have a horse to ride on anymore—since the horse actually belonged to another family and was stolen.
Then Mary Alice asks Grandma where Bootsie—the cat she brought all the way from Chicago—has gone. When Grandma tells her that the cat is out in the cobhouse, Mary Alice worries that she'll run away.
But Grandma assures her that she's thought of everything—she buttered Bootsie's paws, which the cat will spend a while licking off. By the time she's done, she'll obviously feel at home here. You can't argue with logic like that…can you?