Ruth Anne "Bone" Boatwright is born to fifteen-year-old Anney Boatwright in Greenville, South Carolina. The word “illegitimate,” stamped in red ink on Bone’s birth certificate, eats at Anney’s pride and she struggles unsuccessfully to get an unmarked copy. Bone comes of age surrounded by the Boatwrights, a “large, unorthodox brood” (Glencoe, 47). Bone grows up listening to her Granny spin half-invented tales of the family's past and admiring her wild uncles, who drink, brawl, and carry knives.
After Bone's birth, Granny runs Bone’s philandering biological father out of town. Anney later remarries a kind boy named Lyle Parsons, who gives Anney her second daughter, Reese. Tragically, Lyle is killed in a car accident soon after Reese's birth. Eventually, Anney meets Glen Waddell, an insecure and shy boy whom she dates for two years before finally marrying. Granny and Anney’s sisters have reservations about Glen, who seems to have a possessive and controlling side. After the wedding, Glen becomes obsessed with Anney’s pregnancy and the upcoming birth of what he is sure will be a son. The night Anney goes into labor, Glen molests Bone in the front seat of his car in the hospital parking lot. Hours later, Glen reveals that the newborn infant (a boy) is still-born and that Anney can no longer have children.
Glen has difficulty finding and retaining jobs, meaning that the family is constantly moving. The family’s financial situation becomes so dire at one point that Anney prostitutes herself to buy groceries. Bone struggles with her family's economic marginalization and the belittling comments and stares from Greenville's upper and middle class citizens. She steals candy from Woolworths and seethes with rage when Anney forces her to apologize to the condescending, wealthy manager. Later she destroys a set of rosebushes at Glen’s brother's home after overhearing Uncle James refer to her family as ‘trash.’
Glen grows increasingly abusive, brutally beating Bone with his belt as punishment for running in the house. In the aftermath of the beating, Anney blames Bone for upsetting Glen, setting a pattern for future abuse. After one particularly violent incident, Bone must be hospitalized. An angry intern confronts Anney about the young girl's numerous bruises and broken bones. Anney temporarily leaves Glen but soon returns. After a short respite, Glen’s assaults begin again. Clearly suffering from the effects of abuse, Bone becomes fascinated with violence and sex. Anney sends Bone to live with her sick Aunt Ruth for several weeks. Feeling safe, Bone almost confides in Ruth but cannot find a way to articulate the abuse she is suffering. During her stay, Bone falls in love with the emotional gospel songs she hears at a revival meeting.
Bone befriends a troubled child named Shannon Pearl who has translucent skin and white-blonde hair. Shannon is the object of constant ridicule and shares Bone’s obsession with violence. Bone travels with the Pearl family, who work on the gospel singing circuit, until she and Shannon fight over the wealthier girl's use of a racial slur. Long afterward, Bone accepts a reconciliatory invitation to attend a barbecue at Shannon's house. Their reunion takes a fatal turn, though, and Bone witnesses Shannon burn alive after throwing lighter fluid onto a grill. Shannon's death disturbs and unsettles Bone.
Reese begins displaying some of the same disturbing sexual behavior as Bone, implying that she is also a victim of Glen’s abuse. Anney, trying to ensure the girls are never alone with Glen, sends Bone to help her sister Raylene in the afternoons. Bone quickly bonds with her aunt, spending her time fishing items out of the river, tending to the garden, and helping can fruits. One afternoon, Bone pulls a pair of trawling hooks from the river and concocts a plan to break into Woolworths by scaling the wall. Bone recruits her cousin Grey to help her break into Woolworths one night. Once inside, Bone realizes that there is nothing she wants to take. Bone’s criminality continues her family's pattern: Grey and his brother Garvey are later arrested for drag racing on the highway and Bone’s beloved Uncle Earle is sent to prison for breaking a man’s jaw.
Aunt Ruth dies and the Boatwright family gathers for her funeral, where their dysfunction is on full display. Glen brutally beats Bone right before the funeral, leaving her backside bruised and bloody. During the event, everyone is drinking, including Bone. Aunt Raylene discovers the drunk Bone in the bathroom and sees the marks from Glen’s beating. Furious, she tells the Boatwright uncles who pull Glen outside, beating him so badly he has to be hospitalized. Instead of comforting her daughter, Anney remains cold and distant, blaming her for the abuse.
Anney moves her daughters to an apartment but continues to resent Bone. Bone senses her mother’s rejection and temporarily flees to Aunt Raylene’s. She soon leaves again to care for her Aunt Alma, who has an emotional breakdown after the death of her infant daughter. One night at Aunt Alma’s house, Bone tells her mother that when Anney returns to Glen, Bone will not go back with her. She refuses to ever live in the same house with Glen again.
Glen arrives at Aunt Alma’s soon after to demand Bone tell her mother that she wants all of them to live together again. Bone refuses and Glen beats and rapes her. Anney finds Glen on top of her daughter and screams, throwing things at him. She pulls her bleeding daughter to the car and puts her in the front seat. Before driving away, Anney stops to comfort Glen, who is smashing his head against the car and begging for her forgiveness. Meanwhile, Bone, bleeding and full of hate, slips into unconsciousness.
Bone wakes in a hospital where a domineering sheriff questions her until Aunt Raylene appears at her side. Raylene brings an apathetic and angry Bone back to her home where she tells Bone that Anney has disappeared with Glen. Bone remains mute and unresponsive for days as Raylene and her uncles attempt to communicate with her. One night Anney arrives, assures Bone that she loves her, and leaves her a gift: an envelope containing an unmarked copy of her birth certificate. Bone reflects on Anney’s life and concludes that she is destined to be a Boatwright woman, like her mother before her.