After Kit and Ruthie enjoy their modified day-after Christmas outing with their mothers (window shopping, a picnic lunch: all free), Ruthie and her mom pick up her dad at work. While there, Ruthie notices a file on her father's desk with a note that the Kittredge family will be evicted if they don't come up with $200 (more than $2500 today) by December 28. Ruthie knows that they think they have until January 2: "after the holidays." Kit's father is gone for about a week for a short job, and while he's going to bring pay back with him, he's going to be too late.
Ruthie rushes to tell Kit, and tries to offer her a little money, but Kit politely turns her down as Ruthie's ten dollars won't come close. Uncle Hendrick has already refused to help. Thinking quickly, Ruthie asks about Aunt Millie, who raised Kit's father. Kit agrees that she'd be willing to help, but she doesn't have a phone and there's no time to send a letter. Ruthie comes up with a plan: she'll use her ten dollars to buy train fare for her and Kit to go see Aunt Millie in person. The next day, Kit meets Ruthie at the train station, but her brother Charlie is with her. Kit told Charlie about the plan, and he's there to stop Ruthie's hair-brained scheme. Ruthie protests that she already bought the tickets, and they have to at least try. Charlie relents, but goes in Kit's place to provide a little protection.
On the way to Aunt Millie's secluded Appalachian town, Charlie comments that Ruthie is very trusting of strangers, and hopes that she doesn't have to learn the truth about human nature too soon or too harshly. Ruthie counters that she'd rather believe most people are good.
When they arrive, Aunt Millie immediately agrees to help. She gets the money from the bank and hands it to Ruthie, who Charlie says deserves the honor of carrying it. But they've missed the last train back. Aunt Millie won't let them give up though. She gets the town to flag down a passing train that wouldn't normally stop there (I guess it's the express). The engineer knows Aunt Millie, and lets Ruthie and Charlie board. When they get back to Cincinnati, Charlie takes a moment to thank Ruthie sincerely and humbly for her help and caring. He then invites her in so she can tell everyone the good news. But Charlie's gratitude gives Ruthie pause. The people who helped them on their journey, Aunt Millie's eagerness...they all helped because it was the right thing to do and out of love. Isn't that why Ruthie decided to visit Aunt Millie, because she care so much about Kit and her family? Before she'd been excited to prove that she can be realistic and useful despite her love of fairy tales, but now she doesn't want to play the part of a hero, not in the face of the Kittredge family's desperation. She asks Charlie to keep her part in the adventure a secret, and heads home.
A few days later, Ruthie is playing with Kit and Sterling. Charlie and his parents are talking about how happy they are to have not lost their home. Mr. and Mrs. Kittredge start praising Charlie for his bravery and ingenuity in visiting Aunt Millie. He looks at Ruthie and asks permission to tell the whole story, and she acquiesces--Aunt Millie will tell soon enough anyway. Charlie grins and starts to tell the real story, the one about Kit's creative and caring friend.
Whenever a friend falls on hard times, it's natural to want to help them out. But it can be hard to do without the friend feeling like a charity case or a leech; it has to be done the right way. During the Depression, people like Ruthie's family found ways to help the less fortunate without damaging their pride. Sometimes people would organize "parties" that left the guest of honor with donations of food or money but also provided everyone involved with a fun afternoon. Others found or created jobs, like a teacher in Virginia who hired a destitute student to do chores. With the money the student earned, she was able to help support her family and still attend school. Still other people would leave donations anonymously. The government had aid programs as it does today, but those were short-term solutions. To make a bigger impact, the government put people to work fixing up national parks and other needed services.
This book is dedicated to "Robert Schuyler Heuer, with love."