Aged thirteen, Martha is rescued by the courts from the clutches of her evil stepfather, Jackser, and her feckless mother, Sally. After numerous arrests for shoplifting, a judge rules that she is to be sent to a convent school with the instruction that she is to get an education.
Her initial relief at escaping the abuse and neglect she suffered at home is, however, short-lived, as she soon realises that there are many forms of cruelty in this life. As she says, 'You can have a full belly, but your heart can be very empty.' Ostracised by the other children for being a 'street kid' and put to back-breaking work by the nuns, she leads a lonely existence, her only joy coming from the books she devours and her mischievous sense of humour.
Desperate for love and a little place where she feels she belongs, despite all that she has suffered Martha retains her compassion for others and still continues to hope for a brighter future when she will be free to make her own way in life.