Jewel begins in 1945. Jewel Hilburn (Farrah Fawcett), 39, and her husband Leston (Patrick Bergin), 41, are scratching out a living in rural Mississippi, and caring for their four children: Raylene (Rachel Skarsten), 14; Burton (Kyle Fairlie),11; Wilman (Max Morrow),10; and Annie (Alexis Vandermaelen), 3. All Jewel's kids have been mid-wived by her friend and housekeeper, Cathedral (Cicely Tyson). Leston has been making a living pulling out pine stumps, selling them to be made into turpentine as part of the war effort. Cathedral's husband, Nelson (Ardon Bess), and their two sons, Sepulchur and Temple, all work for Leston.

The Hilburns discover that they are going to have another child, and decide it will be their last. Cathedral has a premonition and warns Jewel, prophesizing that the child she will bear will be her hardship and her test in this world but that it is God's way of smiling down on Jewel.

Jewel gives birth to a baby girl, whom they name Brenda Kay. The child appears to be fine, but in time it becomes obvious that Brenda Kay isn't like other children. She seems to be developing much more slowly. Even at six months old, she lies very still, where other children her age are able to roll over.

Worried, they consult their local physician, Dr. Beaudry, who has his suspicions, but calls in Dr. Basket, his old teacher and the best baby doctor in the South, to make an educated diagnosis. His words to Jewel and Leston are crushing: Brenda Kay is physically and mentally retarded. She has Down Syndrome, or, as he describes it as people did in that time, is 'a Mongolian Idiot'. He recommends having her put in an institution with other children with the same condition since Brenda Kay will be a huge burden on them, especially since they already have four other children to care for. At any rate, he bluntly informs them, their daughter is unlikely to survive past her second birthday.

An outraged Jewel flat out refuses, and declares she will care for her own daughter at home and raise her there as part of the family. Dr. Beaudry tells Jewel that Brenda Kay will have a better chance at survival if she receives injections every six weeks to strengthen her bones. The injections are expensive, but Jewel says that somehow she and her husband will manage to pay for them. And they do. For years, even when times get tough after Leston's job dries up and he has no work. The kids sell the vegetables the family grows on their land, Raylene quits school and gets a job, and Jewel takes in sewing work. And all that time, with enormous grit and determination, Jewel concentrates her attention on Brenda Kay, who does not die, but doesn't lift her head till she is one, or crawl till she is four. Every step of the way Jewel is there to bathe Brenda Kay, to feed her, change her, rock her when she cries…and encourage her. At age seven, Brenda Kay walks downstairs by herself for the first time. The constant needs of Brenda Kay often means Jewel sacrifices time and energy from her other, older children in the demands of looking after her challenged daughter.

Jewel reads of a 'miracle school' in Los Angeles that is reputed to help raise the I.Q. of children like Brenda Kay. She tries to convince Leston that all of them will have better opportunities to find good jobs there and that Brenda Kay could attend this remarkable school. While Leston considers, Burton announces he himself is going to California immediately to look for work.

Brenda Kay, meanwhile, has a couple of near brushes with death. While being looked after by Cathedral, she accidentally burns her arms before Cathedral puts out the flames. And she walks into the swamp and is rescued from drowning by her older brother, Wilman.

Jewel has secretly applied to the California school, The Exceptional Children's Foundation, and has received notice that Brenda Kay will be accepted. To raise money to go to California, Jewel secretly begins to sell items from the Hilburn's home, but Leston notices that their heirlooms are disappearing and confronts his wife. After a serious discussion, he agrees to sell their home and move to California for Brenda Kay's sake, but on the condition that someday they will move back to Mississippi.

The Hilburns uproot themselves and move the whole family to Los Angeles, except for Raylene, who announces her sudden marriage and stays in Mississippi. The family drives across the country and rendezvous with Burton, now working at a garage. Leston gets a job, and Brenda Kay is enrolled in the 'miracle' school, run by its Director, Nathan White. For the first time, Brenda Kay is exposed to other children like herself. And for the first time, Jewel is not solely responsible for her daughter.

Now it is 1961, and Brenda Kay is sixteen. Jewel is still optimistic, but the school has not raised Brenda Kay's I.Q. Leston has a better job, and even Jewel works at Brenda Kay's school as an assistant teacher. White tries to convince Jewel that the time is at hand when Jewel must let go of Brenda Kay and that her ministrations are holding her daughter back. Keeping her promise to Leston, she agrees to return to Mississippi to look for a house where they can live. There, they are reunited with Cathedral and Nelson, but Leston realizes that his home is now in Los Angeles, and that his past in Mississippi is, indeed, past. Leston asks Jewel, "what will become of Brenda Kay." So they return to California and resume their new lives. Over time, but reluctantly, Jewel comes to agree with White's idea, and to accept the fact that her daughter, who once needed all her mother's love and strength to survive, must now be allowed to begin to live her own life. White recommends a group home with other Down Syndrome adults, run by Nancy and Larry Tindle. There, he says, Brenda Kay will learn to live separate and independent from Jewel's over-protective care.

Jewel and Leston leave Brenda Kay in her new home and with the new friends she has made there. Jewel still visits her daughter often, but has realized the wisdom of letting her grow by herself. Letting go of the child who has been both a blessing and a burden is perhaps the hardest of the many tasks Jewel has faced, but like everything else, she confronts and accepts it with remarkable courage and love.

The Kaufman Company 2013