While ten-year-old Emma visits San Francisco with her family, she is separated from them during the great 1906 earthquake. Befriended by Enrico Caruso, world famous opera tenor, she is reunited with her Uncle Fritz in New Mexico. Traumatized and plagued by panic attacks following the earthquake, she regains her voice and settles into life with her warm and affectionate Spanish-American family on their ranch. She overcomes her fear of horses through the efforts of a boy cousin who introduces her to the amazing and interesting desert surrounding the uncle’s ranch.
Convinced that her Papa is still alive, she meets the weekly train in Santa Fe looking for him. One day a man disembarks the train that she mistakes as Papa. The man is her Uncle Chris come from Texas seeking her guardianship.
Old family prejudices between the two brothers arise. Should she be raised in a German or a Spanish household where one parent is illegitimate? Should she attend a Catholic school or a German school? Other old family secrets taint the arguments as to who is best to raise Emma. The New Mexico Territorial Court presided by an Anglo judge decides in favor of Uncle Chris.
Wanting to remain with her Spanish-American uncle and aunt in New Mexico, Emma runs away only to find that survival alone in the barren desert isn’t easy. Rescued by a passing sheepherder, she accepts that she must go to Texas.
Adjusting to life with her Uncle’s German family proves insufferable. Her bedroom is the back porch through which everyone walks entering and leaving the house. To her aunt she’s a servant. Her uncle ignores her. A boy cousin announces from the first moment he see her she’s not wanted. Only her Oma (grandmother) who lives in a tiny house across the yard shows her love and warmth.
Her bicycle provides a means of escape from her hostile home environment. Adventures abound she as she discovers some of the interesting landmarks of the town along with its history. Her cousin bullies her constantly always threatening her to keep his secrets. Finally, while playing Indians, he and some of his buddies raid Emma’s bedroom. They capture her cherished rag doll that they scalp and tie to a tree in the backyard. No adult disciplines the boys for their behavior. Emma only receives a scolding for being ‘too old to play with dolls’.
The continuous taunting and harsh words hurled at Emma by her aunt finally become too much. She runs to her grandmother for protection. Oma, a strong and assertive individual, jumps to Emma’s defense chiding her son for his neglect of her and challenges his right to her guardianship.
Life becomes pleasanter when Emma moves in with her Oma. They divide their time between town and the family farm. She finds her tendency toward clumsiness, something she’s experienced all her life has returned. Seeking self-assurance and self-confidence, she begins to explore the unfamiliar hilly countryside.
A newfound friend, Wolfe helps and accepts her despite all. He introduces her to the wonders of country life in the hill country. Together they hunt, capture and sell armadillos. He shares with her his special cave along the riverbank. One day they locate a lone baby boar that fortunately doesn’t attack. The following day because of Emma’s insistence, they search for the baby. Not finding it but the angry mother boar they are chased onto a rickety barn roof.
Emma’s good samaritian, Enrico Caruso, and she have kept up a correspondence with each other. Caruso also has never given up searching for Emma’s family, even hiring a detective. An invitation arrives from Caruso to attend one of his concerts in Corsicania, Texas, a town north and east of New Braunfels. Oma doesn’t feel able to go with Emma but Uncle Chris agrees to chaperone Emma so she may visit her friend. Her uncle is excited about the trip because he’s interested in how the famous fruitcake bakery has become so successful. Upon arriving in Corsicania they learn the hotel where they’ll be staying is above the bakery. Caruso brings many gifts for Emma, among them her first pair of high-heeled shoes. On the night of the performance Emma dresses to the “nines,” including wearing her high-heeled shoes. During the performance she eagerly leans forward in her balcony seat. One high heel twists under her as she stands up. She lurches forward almost falling over the balcony. Her uncle catches one ankle and hangs on until an alert musician catches her from below. Emma is safe.
On the return train trip back to New Braunfels, Emma learns from her uncle some family’s secrets that fill in some of the questions that have plagued her. The time together alone has created a new musical interest between Emma and Uncle Chris.
Although the time with Caruso brought great joy to Emma, sadness also reared its ugly head. Her family was still missing. Caruso even though he’d hired a detective had no news for her. Soothing her disappoint, she immersed herself in learning to play the violin, her Papa’s favorite instrument. She wants to have a surprise for him when he returns.
Late one afternoon upon returning to the farmhouse, she observes a strange looking bicycle in front of the house. It was one of those new fangled motorbikes with a body like a camel. Papa! It must be her Papa.
After a period of time allowing Papa to recuperate from his San Francisco experiences and adjust to his wife and sons disappearance, Emma and Papa return to Santa Fe. Wolfe and his Paw, a childhood friend of Emma’s Papa, move with them. Suffering from bouts of trauma, Papa relies on Wolfe, Emma and Wolfe’s Paw to run the business. Never giving up hope that Mama and Edmund will find their way home, the family carries on until the best of all news arrives. Mama perhaps is alive and well in Idaho.