When influenza virus hits Boston and Hannah Gold is separated from her family, she must find a way to recover and to return to her family. In September of 1918, Hannah lives in Boston's West End with her two younger sisters Libbie and Eve, her Tanta Rose, and her aunt's sharp, critical, but honest friend Vashti, known for her skills with herbs and healing. Hannah's mother has been trapped in Russia for four years as World War I has raged. Her father had taken care of her sisters and her until earlier that year, when he enlisted in the army. Enlisting is big in Hannah's community; one of her neighbors, Ovadiah, was the only man of the proper age to enlist she knew who had stayed behind to take care of his younger brother and sister, and he was often accused of being a coward. Hannah's neighbors also include Harry Weisz, who has a crush on her (and who she also likes); Mrs. McCarthy the avid pianist; and the fish sales lady who gives her scraps of paper on which to draw. Hannah loves to draw. She also earns money by selling the morning paper (unusual for a girl), and sometimes sees angels in the street behind their house. One day as she is selling papers, a girl with purple eyes pushes her out of the way of a streetcar, saving her life. Hannah doesn't tell anyone about this, though.
Hannah's job selling papers also means she sees important news in early September about the flu. At first, it seems it is only talk; then people start to become sick. Vashti is called for increasingly. Harry's father, Mr. Weicz, becomes sick. He begins to improve and then relapses and dies. Tanta Rose wants to send Hannah and her sisters away for safety, but Vashti refuses out of pride, promising to keep them safe. A few days after Mr. Weicz's death, Tanta Rose comes home with the flu and is dead the next day. That same night, Libbie and Eve become sick. Vashti insists that Hannah leave for a relative's place in Maine. On the way, Hannah stops by the hospital and asks that a “real” doctor be sent to care for her sisters. She uses the paper with her relative's address to write her own address for the doctor.
Her head whirling, Hannah heads for the train station. The girl with purple eyes appears again and helps her onto the train. On the train, she realizes she, too, is sick. She changes trains once, and boards the wrong train, ending up in a small town in Vermont. The townspeople take her into an emergency hospital, where she spends several weeks. She loses her voice, and must use her ability to draw and write to communicate.
When she is partially recovered and others need the space, she goes to stay with a German American man named Klaus. Though skeptical at first, she finds they have much in common. Klaus is patient and recognizes her need for help. He also does not judge her when she finally explains her seemingly finicky eating habits with her Jewish heritage and requirements for kosher food. Hannah is afraid he will be prejudiced against Jews, but it turns out he is quite understanding as he also has experience facing the prejudice of those who see all Germans – even those in America – as the enemy. While with “Uncle” Klaus, Hannah spends her time baking, learning to knit, recuperating, collecting plants, and taking care of Klaus' animals. As she becomes stronger, she also attempts to send two letters home and starts collecting moosewood bark to earn money for a train ticket home. When the mailman becomes sick with the flu, however, she and Klaus visit him and she discovers he never sent her letters out of pity for Klaus, who he knew was lonely. (Klaus did not know.) With help from him and Klaus, however, Hannah is able to buy her ticket home. With help from her purple-eyed girl, she goes to the train station and boards a train home.
Once home in Boston, it takes time for her to find people she knows. Her sisters are no longer with Vashti in their old apartment, and Hannah feels like a ghost there. When she enters into Mrs. Weicz's shop, Mrs. Weicz thinks she IS a ghost, and drives her out. At the graveyard, she finds Ovadiah, whose younger siblings have died. In the overalls and hat she is now wearing, he mistakes her for his younger brother Nathan. For a day and a night, in spite of her protests that she isn't Nathan, they take care of each other.
The next day, the bells ring for the end of the war. In the celebrating crowds, Hannah finds Vashti, who she directs to help Ovadiah if she can, and she finds Harry, Eve, Libbie, and a repentant Mrs. Weicz, who now realizes she isn't a ghost. Eve and Libbie have been living with Mrs. Weicz to allow Vashti more focus on her patients; this is now Hannah's home, too. Ovadiah does not recover, though it is not the flu he has; he has gone crazy with his losses. Eve, her sisters, Harry, and Mrs. Weicz, however, are thankful for what they still do have and are able to move on and be happy. Hannah's purple-eyed girl - an angel - makes one more appearance and leaves Hannah with a valuable reminder of this time: a sketch of Hannah, Klaus, and the purple-eyed girl, sketched by Klaus, with a note from him.
Best part of story, including ending:
During her time with Klaus, Hannah is able to reflect on alternate viewpoints. Also, in writing her work of historical fiction, Karen Hesse's afterward seems to indicate she herself believes in angels and has assumed their existence in the book. Their presence is not an imaginative addition, though their exact role in this case is.
Best scene in story:
When Hannah goes home with Mrs. Weicz and Harry after returning from Vermont, Libbie and Eve come out and practically bombard Hannah with hugs. In spite of the losses they have suffered, they can still have a happy ending.
Opinion about the main character:
Hannah is artistic and thoughtful. She is able to reflect on and gradually come to understand other viewpoints through her experiences and through others' stories, especially when it comes to someone as patient and understanding as Uncle Klaus.