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Thirteen-year-old Willie Starr, dressed in the remnants of a once-lovely dress, sits on abandoned railroad tracks and wistfully tells her friend Tom about her dead sister, Alva. Alva Starr is a beautiful woman living in a small town in Mississippi in the 1930's. Her mother, Hazel, the proprietor of a boardinghouse for railroad workers, insists upon steering her into the arms of a prosperous middle-aged man, Johnson, but Alva falls in love with Owen Legate, a handsome stranger from New Orleans who is in town to lay off a number of railroad workers as a result of the Depression. When Owen is beaten up by five of the workers, he makes plans to leave, taking Alva with him. Hazel tricks him into thinking that Alva is engaged to Johnson, however, and Owen disappears without giving Alva a chance to explain. Upon learning the truth, Alva gets drunk and spitefully marries her mother's brutish lover, J. J. Nichols. The next day she runs away and joins Owen in New Orleans. Their happiness is soon ruined by Hazel, who viciously exposes her daughter's marriage. In despair Alva runs away, becomes a cheap pickup, and eventually dies of tuberculosis. With the passing of time, Willie only recalls Alva as an enchanted creature whose life was filled with beauty and romance.