Cassie Logan, an African American girl in the sixth grade, narrates the story of her family and extended kin and friends in Depression-era Mississippi. The family owns their land, which they inherited from their grandfather, but Mr. Granger, the wealthy white owner whose land abuts theirs, is always endeavoring to take it from them.
When the novel begins, Cassie and her family spend time with their friends and neighbors. They discuss the plight of young T.J. Avery, a friend of her teenage brother Stacey; T.J. has been arrested for robbing and murdering a white shopkeeper. Cassie and her brothers and friends attend the trial even though their parents did not want them to. They witness T.J.’s noble white lawyer, Mr. Jamison, attempt to show the jury the truth–that T.J. was led into the robbery by the two white Simms brothers but did not murder the shopkeeper. Despite the very clear evidence, T.J. is convicted and sentenced to death by the all-white jury.
Cassie spends time reading to her elderly neighbor Mrs. Lee Annie. She and her siblings also go to church and school. Her mother, once a teacher before Mr. Granger arranged for her firing for suspicious reasons, teaches a school-after-school for the kids.
The Depression is difficult for all farmers, sharecroppers and landowners alike. Papa begins to worry they will not be able to afford the tax on their cotton. Stacey wishes he could help by getting work and chafes at his parents’ reservations about him doing so.
Morris Wheeler, a white man, and John Moses, a black man, come to Papa and tell him they are starting a union to organize poor farmers. Since Papa is so respected, they want his support. Papa and other black farmers hold a meeting and agree the union is worthwhile, but are concerned about the fact that it is mixed-race.
Papa’s brother Uncle Hammer comes to visit. He is much admired for his clothing and his car; he also inspires a bit of awe and fear in his niece and nephews. One day he blows up at Cassie and Stacey for possessing a picture of their white friend Jeremy. While Uncle Hammer is there, Mama’s nephew Cousin Bud comes to visit. He shocks the family by telling them he has a white wife and a daughter by her. Uncle Hammer yells at him, but Mama tries to understand. Bud tells her he’d like to send his daughter, Suzella, to come stay with them so she can understand her black community better.
Racial tensions heighten when the white landowners hear of the union. Economic troubles also accelerate, and other white men beat up the county agent. Papa leaves to work on the railroad for a few months to earn extra money. Some black farmers, such as Mr. Turner, the father of one of Stacey’s best friends, have to plow up their cotton crop for nothing.
Mrs. Lee Annie announces she wants to vote and although everyone tries to dissuade her, Mama and Cassie agree to help her study the constitution and laws for her literacy test.
Cassie is disturbed that Stacey is growing up and changing and seems to have no time for her anymore. She is also annoyed when Suzella comes to visit because her cousin is beautiful and universally beloved; she seems to replace Cassie and it is difficult for her not to be jealous. Suzella also disturbs Cassie because she refuses to admit she is black. One day she even pretends she is white when a local white boy, the arrogant Stuart Walker, flirts with her. Stuart is a dangerous young man and is rumored to have impregnated another young black girl, Jacey Peters.
One morning the family discovers that Stacey and his friend Moe Turner have gone off looking for work to help pay the taxes. Everyone is horrified and Mama summons Papa home. For months, he, Uncle Hammer, and Mr. Morrison, a man who works the Logan lands, search for Stacey. They hear rumors he is in the cane fields in Louisiana, but have trouble finding out more information.
Cassie comes down with scarlet fever but survives; other people in town, including one of her friends, do not. The days are long and sad without Stacey. Even the holidays are quiet and mournful.
Cousin Bud returns to fetch Suzella. Cassie is surprised that she has come to like her cousin and will be sad to see her go. Before they leave, though, Stuart and his friends harass Bud and try to humiliate him in front of his daughter and the Logan children, because he found out Suzella misled him about her race. Mr. Morrison saves Bud, but the event is unsettling.
Amid a backdrop of union troubles and stirrings of discontent among the farmers, Mrs. Lee Annie decides she is ready to register to vote. Around the same time there is better info about Stacey discovered. The family goes into town. Mama and Cassie are going with Mrs. Lee Annie, while Papa and Mr. Morrison to find out about Stacey.
When Mrs. Lee Annie tries to register, the registrar initially rebuffs her. Mr. Granger, on whose land Mrs. Lee Annie and her family live and work, comes to see what she is up to. He is first angry with her, but after a private conversation with a visibly distressed Stuart Walker, he tells Mrs. Lee Annie she can register.
The reasons for Mr. Granger’s actions become clear. Outside in the town square, a long procession of dispossessed farmers from Stuart’s father’s land is gathering, angry and calling for unionization. The sheriff tells them to disperse, but they do not. Mr. Granger steps forward and stokes racial fears. He points to a bewildered Mrs. Lee Annie and tells the crowd she tried to register to vote; this horrifies them.
Violence and chaos break out and the crowd breaks up. Mr. Granger tells Mrs. Lee Annie and her relatives they have to get off his land.
Cassie and her parents decide to pursue the information they have on Stacey and head to Shokesville, Louisiana. To their immense relief and joy they find Stacey in a jail there. He tells his story of finding work in the cane fields, the miserable conditions and manipulative behavior of the plantation owner, and his and Moe’s eventual decision to leave. A few friends of theirs stole the money they were owed, leading Stacey and Moe to be falsely arrested. Cassie is overjoyed to have her brother back, but sees how weary he is.
As the novel ends, Stacey returns home to the joyous cries of his grandmother and younger brothers. He and Cassie agree that home is the best place to be.