Sarah Davis, a pretty and popular resident of Cresselton (a highfalutin Northern school for girls), gets a telegram from home. Telegrams were never good news back in the day.
Sarah's friends think she's super pretty, even "exotic"—a word Walker defines as distasteful. They show her off to the boys who come to visit from Harvard and Yale.
Sarah hates her friends' tackiness. But now, they want to know what's in the telegram. Sarah tells them it's news that her dad is dead.
Sarah's friends all feel sorry for her and heap more praise on her exotic beauty. Ick.
We learn that Sarah is an artist—but she can't draw Black men because she hates the idea of drawing defeat. She thinks this is inevitable when drawing them.
Sarah has to go home for her father's funeral, but she honestly doesn't want to. She's comfy at Talfinger Hall and thinks of it as home now.
Sarah's family lives in Georgia and couldn't imagine leaving the South for anything. At least, her granddad can't. Sarah decides she wants to see him when she gets home.
Pam, Sarah's suitemate, comes into her room. Pam thinks Sarah is beautiful, but Sarah thinks this is because she's never seen a Black woman before.
Sarah thinks that if Pam traveled to Georgia, she would see a lot of Black women just as pretty as she is.
Pam asks Sarah if there's anything she can do for her. She could, for instance, get her rich dad to fly Sarah to Georgia in his private plane.
We learn that Pam's dad is one of the richest dudes on the planet—and that Sarah finds this ironic. Pam doesn't look like a billionaire's daughter in Sarah's mind.
Sarah tells Pam that she's thinking about what her duty is to her father. She's thinking of Richard Wright and an episode he'd written about with his own father.
Pam has zero idea of what Sarah is talking about or who Richard Wright even is. Sarah is annoyed at this: it's a fancy-schmancy school, but Black authors aren't taught in the classes.
Pam and Sarah discuss what it means for a person to have a father—especially a father who is unsympathetic—and how much a person is bound to his or her father.
Pam says that a strong person doesn't need a father. Wright, for instance, doesn't feel that he is defined by his good-for-nothing pops.
Sarah complicates the issue with a stunning comparison. She calls Wright's father a "faulty door in a house of many ancient rooms."
Is Wright—or anyone—to be shut off from his ancestors because of one bad guy? How fair is that?
When Sarah gets to the train station, she already doesn't miss her friends. She feels that they can never know her because they can't know Wright or where she comes from. They are insulated in a very white world and don't care to reach out of it. Sarah doesn't particularly care that she's not a part of their world and would never be allowed in.
When Sarah gets home, her father's body is laid out in a coffin in her old room. Yipes.
Sarah thinks that her father's face looks closed—kind of like that door in the ancient house. She realizes that this is the first time she's really been alone with her dad.
And that time is interrupted by a rat scurrying around under the casket. Ick.
It turns out that Sarah's mother just up and died one night long ago, and Sarah blamed her father for her mother's death. She suspects that she was wrong to do that.
Now, Sarah remembers her father's sadness at her mom's death. It occurs to her that she never tried to connect with him in a way he'd have understood.
Sarah is still confronted with the rat in the room (literally). She tells herself to stare the rat down, and maybe it will go away. We quickly see that this phrase, which repeats, becomes symbolic.
But the rat does actually go away because of this tactic. Sarah now has to deal with an image of her mother, urging her father to move away from one of their houses.
Turns out, Sarah's family members were sharecroppers, constantly on the move after crops or avoiding horrible landlords. Her father thinks the moving killed her mom.
But Sarah's feelings toward her father aren't all tender. She remembers his violent temper and the unsettled way they lived.
Sarah's brother comes into the room, and we learn that he's a preacher. He's also an activist, and beside him, Sarah feels that her love for poetry and art are unimportant.
Now, her grandma is in the picture. She wants to know if Sarah is pregnant yet—mostly because she wants great-grandchildren. She doesn't even require Sarah to be married for that to happen.
At the church, Sarah sees her grandfather for the first time. She sits next to him in the front row and puts her head down on his shoulder.
Only Sarah and her grandpa don't cry at the funeral service. Sarah watches her grandfather at the graveside and sees that he is dignified and heroic. She wants to paint him like that.
Sarah realizes that the defeat she always sees on the faces of Black men in paintings is there because they are painted by white men. It doesn't have to be so.
Sarah tells her grandpa that she will paint him just like that. He says he'd rather she make a sculpture of him.
The narrator notes that though the grave mound has disturbed the wild honeysuckle, it would grow back in a week like nothing had happened.
Sarah is having second thoughts about returning to Cresselton, but her brother won't have anything to do with that idea. He reminds her how proud her mother would have been about Cresselton. He also reminds her that she's representing for Black Southern girls at that school—and that Sarah is super smart and deserves a good education.
Sarah thinks that maybe going back to Cresselton—which she had always wanted to attend—isn't what she needs in her life at that moment.
Sarah wonders if she fits in there, especially since she's literally the only Black person there. Okay, there's one more—but she's a Northerner, so she doesn't count.
Sarah's brother encourages her by saying that she thinks about painting and art so much that she's obviously in the right place. Wherever she chooses to go, she'll always be in the right place.
Sarah tells her brother that he's her "door to all the rooms" and asks him never to close to her. He probably has no idea what she's talking about, but he plays it off nicely.
Sarah wonders if Richard Wright was fortunate enough to have had a brother.
Sarah and her brother say goodbye at the train station. She promises to come back one day and surprise him.
Sarah asks her brother if he's ever thought that they are old people in a young place. He doesn't really answer—and then she's off to New York again.
When she gets back to campus, clueless classmates ask Sarah how her trip home was. They all think she looks wonderful.
Sarah decides to employ the "stare down the rat" tactic with her tactless "friends." She's decided that she's a woman in the world and that no one can make her feel less or out of place again. After all, she's buried her father and will only be defined by herself.