Percy Talbott, having been recently released from prison, steps off the bus in Gilead, Wisconsin, a location she selected because of a picture she found in an old travel book. Sheriff Joe Sutter takes Percy to the Spitfire Grill, since it’s the only guest room in town and because he doesn’t know what else to do with her. Here, she meets Hannah, who takes her in and gives her a job.
Effy Krayneck, the town postmistress and busybody, is immediately suspicious of Percy, as is Caleb Thorpe, Hannah’s nephew. They make it known that a jailbird isn’t welcome in their midst. It is the painfully shy Shelby, Caleb’s wife, who is the only one willing to suspend judgment.
When Hannah accidentally falls and injures her leg, Percy gets medical help for her, but Effy immediately goes about spreading the story that Percy pushed Hannah down a flight of stairs. Hannah, disabled for the time being, puts Percy in charge of the grill. Since her cooking proves to be nearly lethal, they enlist the aid of Shelby. Percy also takes over Hannah’s unexplained ritual of leaving a loaf of bread next to a stump behind the grill, a loaf of bread, which always mysteriously disappears during the night.
As they become closer friends, Shelby tells Percy that Hannah had a son, Eli, the town’s favorite, and an idol to Caleb; but Eli was long ago reported missing-in-action in Vietnam.
Hannah, it seems, has been trying to sell the grill for years with no luck. Percy and Shelby, however, come up with a scheme. Why not advertise an essay contest with an entry fee of $100 and award the place to the writer of the best “Why I Want the Spitfire Grill” essay? Hannah agrees and Percy and Shelby devise an ad that describes the town, at least in their eyes.
As the weeks go by, the essays begin to arrive in greater and greater numbers, and the community gradually takes an interest. Meanwhile, Caleb does some research to find out what Percy was convicted of.
While all this has been happening, Sheriff Joe Sutter has become more and more attracted to Percy, leading eventually to a marriage proposal. However, Percy turns him down, saying he deserves someone better than she. Percy confesses some terrible things in her past to Shelby, who reacts with great sympathy and understanding as Percy explains the whole situation.
Percy is finally able to confront the mysterious visitor as he comes for the bread, and we learn his identity. It is Eli, Hannah’s long missing son. He was not missing-in-action, we learn. He was simply missing, a shell-shocked loner who has been hiding in the woods for all this time. Percy convinces him to come inside.
At last, the day arrives when a decision must be made. Hannah decides the winner is the ad that was written for the newspapers, the one written by “her girls.” Percy and Shelby are to get the grill, and all the money is returned to the contestants.
Percy has not only found self-forgiveness and happiness, but has proven to be the healing “balm” in Gilead. Joe, once so eager to leave, decides to stay.