After the death of her beloved grandmother, twelve year old Zellie Blake is forced to find work at a boarding house in Lowell, Massachusetts. It is 1834 and Zellie is an African American young girl who was born free during slavery. Mrs. Gird, who runs the boarding house, is a tough taskmaster and she works Zellie very hard in exchange for room, board, food and small wages. Much to Zellie's dismay, Mrs. Gird has asked Zellie to spy on the young women who live at the boarding house and who work at the textile mills. Mrs. Gird is convinced that these girls are up to something and she wants Zellie to help her get to the bottom of the mystery. Zellie hates the idea of spying on people and she can't imagine how the girls will react if they discover that she is spying on them for Mrs. Gird. When Zellie makes the acquaintance of an Irish seamstress, Miss O'Brien, she immediately strikes up a friendship with the kindly woman. In return for giving her a headache cure, Miss O'Brien promises to teach Zellie to sew. As Zellie begins to take sewing lessons with Miss O'Brien she begins to see a light at the end of her tunnel. Miss O'Brien shows her that she can make a life for herself as a seamstress or as a teacher. When Zellie discovers that the girls in the boarding house are staging a woman's right's demonstration at the textile mill she can't bring herself to tell Mrs. Gird. But when Mrs. Gird realizes that Zellie didn't provide her with the information she was seeking, will Zellie be thrown out on the street?
This report prepared by Sandra Calhoune