According to Gypsy, the narrator, her Aunt Belle vanishes from the face of the earth one Sunday morning in October 1953.
Her husband, Uncle Everett, tells the police that he heard her get up and walk out. He thought she was coming back, but when he woke up again, he found that she was gone—even though she'd taken none of her clothes or shoes with her.
Uncle Everett, Aunt Belle, and Gypsy's cousin Woodrow live in an isolated area called Crooked Ridge, which is near the town where Gypsy lives—Coal Station, Virginia.
The whole county is shaken, and people spread rumors about how Aunt Belle must be dead or how she ran away with another man.
Gypsy's mother—Love Ball Dotson—is the speech and drama teacher at Coal Station High School and Belle's sister. Understandably, she's pretty upset by the whole thing and all the rumors.
Months pass with no word, and after six months, the family learns that Uncle Everett has been drinking a lot. Granny Ball insists on taking Woodrow in, and so he moves to Coal Station.
This means that Gypsy will be spending a lot of time with her cousin, since Granny and Grandpa Ball live next door to Gypsy, her mother, and her stepfather, Porter Dotson.
Gypsy and Woodrow are both twelve but they're nothing alike. Gypsy is super pretty and popular and lives in a nice house, whereas Woodrow is basically a hillbilly. He's also cross-eyed and wears thick glasses.
When Woodrow moves into town, Gypsy goes over to her grandparents' house to greet him. They tell jokes and eat candy together… until Gypsy can't take it any longer and asks him if he has any theories about what happened to his mother.
At first Woodrow is quiet, but then he says that he knows something, but that she can't tell anyone else. He also says that she has to promise to be his best friend.
Gypsy agrees and Woodrow pulls out this book called One Thousand Beautiful Poems and says that for the last few days before his mother disappeared, she read this one poem over and over again—even memorizing it.
The poems say something about "the breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you," which connects to Belle leaving at dawn. And then it says "Don't go back to sleep"—and she didn't. She left and went outside.
Woodrow is convinced that the poem contains all that he needs to know about where his mother went; he just has to break the code.