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When we first meet Hope, she's standing outside of the Blue Box diner, where she's worked as a waitress for the past year and a half. She and her aunt Addie—amazing head cook and part-owner of "the greatest diner in Brooklyn" (2)—had been happy there until Addie's business partner, con-man Gleason Beal, licked their bank account clean and left town.
Just as she's done every other time she's had to leave a place, Hope pulls out a blue pen and writes HOPE WAS HERE in tiny letters on one of the boarded-up windows of the restaurant. It's her way of saying goodbye, and apparently she's had a lot of practice doing so.
Hope reluctantly gets into Addie's Buick; she's not happy about having to move again, especially to a place that promises nothing but small-town boredom for a 16-year-old girl. She and Addie are headed to Mulhoney, Wisconsin, home of the Welcome Stairways diner. Owner G.T. Stoop has hired the pair to manage the town eatery. G.T.'s being treated for leukemia and needs all the help he can get.
During the road trip, Hope takes us back to the day she was born—literally. The tiny preemie is still hooked up to a breathing machine when her mother Deena decides she can't handle being a parent. When baby Hope is finally strong enough to leave the hospital, it's with Deena's older sister, Addie, who'd been longing for a child of her own and devotes her life to raising Hope.
Hope has no idea who her father is, but she's sure he's out there somewhere searching for her. The backseat of Addie's car is packed with scrapbooks Hope's kept of all the places she's lived; she wants to be ready to share the story of her life with her dad when he shows up on her doorstep.
Hope and Addie finally arrive at the Welcome Stairways, but before they can tie the strings on their aprons, G.T. announces his plan to run for mayor in the upcoming election. He's had enough of the corrupt Eli Millstone, who's held the office for the past eight years, and wants to make Mulhoney a better place while he still can.
Hope joins forces with Braverman, the young grill guy at the Welcome Stairways, and a bunch of kids from the local high school to work on G.T.'s campaign. G.T.'s well-liked in Mulhoney, but the Students for Stoop have to work extra hard to convince some people in town to vote for a man with no political experience and a short lease on life. It doesn't help that many of the residents work for the Real Fresh Dairy, the biggest business in town and Millstone's biggest supporter.
Meanwhile, Millstone tries to knock G.T. out of the race by using every dirty trick in the book, including the "Waiter! There's a dead mouse in my salad" ploy to make the diner look bad. His henchmen go for the ribs next—the ones inside Braverman's chest. They beat him up pretty badly and suggest (with their fists) that he put an end to his public endorsements of G.T.
The scare tactics backfire on Millstone big-time. Not only do G.T.'s supporters increase in number and strength, but the people in his inner circle grow closer together. Hope and Braverman slowly become a couple…G.T. and Addie quickly become a couple...and G.T. and Hope instantly become father and daughter after Addie and G.T. get married.
Millstone doesn't give up, though. He starts a rumor that G.T.'s cancer has spread to his brain and the guy will be dead in no time. It works. G.T.'s popularity at the poll takes a dip and when election day arrives, the two rivals are neck-in-neck.
Everyone's crushed when they learn that Millstone beat G.T. by 114 votes. They're finding it hard to believe that the election went down fair and square.
That's because it didn't.
Millstone is forced to resign when the Election Board discovers that he rigged the results. G.T. gets sworn in as mayor a few weeks later and jumps right into action. He fulfills all the promises he made during the election and restores the sense of community in Mulhoney that Millstone had drained from the town. He also proves to be everything and more that Hope had ever wanted in a father.
The novel skips over the next year and a half. At this point, Hope has graduated from high school and is just about to leave for college when G.T. passes away. She's devastated, but finds comfort in the outpouring of love and respect shown for her father by the people in town.
Once again, it's time for Hope to say goodbye to a place she loves. She finds a spot under the counter at the Welcome Stairways diner, pulls out a blue pen and writes HOPE WAS HERE. This time, she does it Terminator-style: "I'll be back."
Hope knows she'll be back, too. Back home that is.