Arden Gifford and her best friend DorJo Huggins have perfect attendance records in sixth grade at Haverlee (N.C.) School. . . until the week after DorJo's wandering mother--a blowsy, unstable Vietnam widow--returns from her latest, longest absence. DorJo doesn't show up for school on Monday morning; her older sister Jessie, who works at the chicken-processing plant, has also left home; and nasty Mrs. Huggins doesn't know--or seem to care--where either of her daughters has got to. So poor Arden's in a terrible state--till Der Jo finally shows up, outside the Gifford kitchen window, disheveled and hungry, having been hiding in the woods. (""It was hard to believe that the sad, broken creature sitting opposite was her DorJo, toughest hombre in the sixth grade."") And, while DorJo gets secretly taken in by the nice Gifford family, Arden learns what's been going on: an ugly quarrel between Mrs. Huggins and DorJo, who (to her own horror) threatened her mother with a knife; Jessie's move to her maternal grandpa's house. But, while Jessie vows never to live with her crazy mother again, Der Jo is terribly torn--afraid of Mrs. Huggins, yet still hoping that they can somehow be a family, and guilty about hiding from her mother at the Giffords' house. Meanwhile, there's also ""an end to perfect"" within the Gilford family: Arden's beloved older brother Hill, frustrated with the local, small-town school, has decided to finish up high school in big-town Grierson, where he'll live with their grandparents. And Arden's distress about Hill's departure soon gets mixed up with other distress when Mrs. Huggins shows up in a genuinely repentant mood, desperately looking for Der Jo: Arden (who treasures DorJo's presence) lies to Mrs. Huggins and, even worse, keeps the visit a secret from DorJo. So there'll be a tearful crisis in the Arden/Der Jo friendship--before modest reconciliations all around: the Huggins family is inching its way back together; and the girls' chumship, now broadened to include pint-sized classmate Seth, is rebuilt. . . as they all look warily ahead to teenagehood, which often seems like ""an affliction from which no one was safe."" Not as special as M. V. Sexton Speaking (1981)--but a low-key, life-sized, warm-toned relief after the feverish psychological excesses of I Will Call It Georgie's Blues (1983).