Papa, Cassie (the narrator), Stacey (her older brother), Christopher-John (her younger brother), and Little Man (her other younger brothers) are driving in their wagon in 1934 one November evening. They pass several places, some empty since the government took farms for taxes. The extensive Granger plantation is still fine.
They arrive at two tenant shacks–one belongs to Mrs. Lee Annie and her grandson Wordell, and the other belongs to the Ellises, two of whose sons, Son-Boy and Don Lee, are on the porch. Two other boys, Little Willie Wiggins and his brother Maynard, are also there. Papa goes to help out with a mule, and the children begin to talk about how the Averys are doing. Another boy, Dube Cross, sixteen but tall and manly, comes by. His family is cotton laborers and very poor but he is a proud boy. Stacey tells him he can come get milk from their cows, and Dube thanks him.
Mrs. Lee Annie, heavy but beautiful and kind, comes out and hugs the children. She tells them her grandson Russell came home from living with his uncle in Indiana. Inside the house are Papa and Mr. Tom Bee, an elderly cousin of Mrs. Lee Annie.
The house is warm and smells good and familiar. Russell arrives, dark-skinned and handsome in his Army uniform. He is only in town for a few days but wants to see everyone. The adults mention something about ‘Bilbo folks’, and the kids wonder who he is. The adults warn Russell to be careful in certain parts, even though he has his uniform.
Talk turns to the trouble of T.J. Avery, a young boy who, with the two white Simms boys, robbed a store. The proprietor was killed and no one wants to believe it was the Simms boys. T.J. will probably not get a trial since he is a colored boy, the adults speculate.
The children go outside and Son-Boy shows them his new marble, a stunning greenish-blue orb. Cassie is awestruck. They all begin to play except Stacey, who, Cassie grumbles to herself, is growing up and not interested in their games anymore. Stacey is also having a hard time because T.J. is a close friend of his.
The children play marbles and Cassie does well, but when Papa comes out he tells them to give the marbles back to Son-Boy and Don Lee. He tells his children they cannot play anymore because it is a form of gambling, which is a sickness. Cassie does not understand and is irritated, but she knows Papa will whip her if she disobeys.
Not long after, the children are at church and Son-Boy brags about his marble. Cassie can barely stand it and hatches a plan with Little Man, Maynard, and Henry Johnson. Maynard and Henry will bet with Cassie. As they plan, Joe McCalister walks by carrying Son-Boy’s sister’s baby. He is perhaps twenty or even forty, but his face shows no wear.
Christopher-John admonishes Cassie for what she is about do, but she will not change her mind; she needs that marble. Son-Boy agrees to meet them at the fallen tree in the woods, and the game begins. Cassie wins the marble, and even though she feels a little sorry for Son-Boy, she exults. She holds the marble up to the sun and marvels at it. Son-Boy’s look gives her pause, but she decides he is a fool.
Unfortunately when the kids return to the classroom area, Papa is there. He sternly tells Cassie to give the marble back and come in for service. Before they can go inside, the baby’s mother, Lou Ella Hicks, comes by looking for Joe and baby Doris Anne. They find the baby in the belfry and Wordell, a young man considered peculiar because he never spoke or smiled, holding the baby. Everyone is worried but Papa softly asks Wordell to give the baby to him. He believes the young man was not going to hurt the baby and was actually getting her down. Cassie wonders where Joe was during all of this. They go into the church.
Clarence Hopkins runs and tells the children at school that he heard that T.J. is going to get a trial in the town of Strawberry. Stacey comments that he will try to go. The bell rings and they disperse to class.
On a dry day such as this fine sunny one, the walk home from school is an hour. Cassie and her family walk through the forest and pastures. They pass a pasture that had been burnt by a fire; it was Papa who secretly did it so that the lynch mob coming for T.J. the night of the murder would be distracted.
They find Big Ma, their tall and strong grandmother, cooking. A wagon carrying Mr. Morrison, a seven-foot tall and muscular man who works for them, arrives at the house. He unloads farm equipment and Cassie tells him about the trial. Mama is chopping wood. She is pretty and thin, and used to be a teacher until Harlan Granger, the wealthy neighboring landowner, had her fired for supposedly destroying school property, when all she really did was organize a boycott against the Wallaces, the white storeowners on the Granger plantation.
Everyone talks about the trial and Christopher-Jones is optimistic until his mother gently helps him understand that the trial will not be fair. She adds that T.J. should have been careful about running around with those boys.
Stacey says he wants to go to the trial but Papa says he cannot be anywhere near there. Everyone knows that Stacey could be assumed to be one of the boys T.J. was with since the white people are saying it was three colored boys who robbed the store.
That evening after supper everyone sits in the room by the fire working on their tasks. They hear a car on the road and look up. Mr. Morrison pulls aside the curtain and says it is Wade Jamison. He is T.J.’s lawyer, a kind white man with whom the Logans have a mutual respect and trust, if not outright friendship. It has been hard for him defending the boy.
They discuss the case, Stacey asking if any blacks will be on the jury (no, because no blacks are registered voters), saying that he plans to put T.J. on the stand, and that it would not be good if anyone from the family were there for the trial.
The days leading up to the trial are filled with talk of nothing else. Cassie wishes for a miracle like she’s read about in the Bible. She remembers how scary the lynch mob was and sees how her parents worry for them all, especially the quiet and moody Stacey.
Cassie learns that Stacey, Little Willie, and Clarence are planning to go to the trial. Stacey is determined even though he knows Papa will whip him. Cassie and her younger brothers plead with him but he will not change his mind. Cassie privately decides she will go too.
Cassie, Little Man, and Christopher-John hitch a ride under the tarpaulin in Joe and Wordell’s wagon. It is a long rough road but they are all silent so the larger boys above them do not hear. When they discovered, though, Stacey fumes. Cassie is not disturbed that her brother is mad, and is more concerned with her stiff back.
The wagon rolls into the strangely quiet and deserted town. Joe drops them off a ways away from the courthouse, refusing to go further. The courthouse has pretty flowers and is surrounded by farm people standing around. They learn the jury has just been selected. There is no more room in the small colored section inside, so they have to watch through the windows.
The children are able to hear white men complaining about the government and possible unions. Jeremy Simms, the younger brother of Melvin and R.W., comes to say hello. He is their friend despite his brothers, but he is still white and that is always between them.
Little Man decides to use the bathroom but cannot see an outhouse. He sees an indoor bathroom and heads there. Cassie drinks from a water fountain. Suddenly Jeremy runs up to her and tells her she cannot do that. She is annoyed, especially when he finds Little Man. He looks scared and tells Stacey, who is also nervous. Cassie does not understand; she feels like there is so much to learn.
The children see a glimpse of their friend T.J. and notice how skinny he is.
The first witness is the wife of the deceased, Mrs. Jim Lee Barnett. She describes how she and her husband saw three Negros robbing them, and were attacked. When she came to, her husband was unconscious and bleeding and she ran to get help. People in the courtroom seem to sympathize with her, and even Cassie feels pity.
Mr. Jamison begins his cross-examination. He asks her questions in a polite manner regarding her glasses (which she did not have on during the robbery) and how they saw without a light (flashlight). He tests whether she can recognize people twenty feet away without her glasses; she cannot. He asks her about the height of the attackers, which does not match T.J.’s height. He shows her two black stockings found in the trash outside her home and asks if they are hers; when she says no, he says white men have been wearing them and she could have thought they were black. He concludes by asking if she can swear they were Negros. She is visibly distressed and says no, she cannot.
The brothers Simms are called up and testify that they saw T.J. and two other Negros running away that night. Someone else testifies that a pearl-handled pistol was found in T.J.’s bed.
T.J. now comes to the stand. He testifies that he and the Simms brothers were going to the Great Revival church meeting but the boys said they had to go to town to get a pistol. When they got there and the store was closed they decided to go in and tell the Barnetts if they came down that they’d pay for it later. He says he was surprised when they put on black stockings.
As T.J. talks, Joe McCalister becomes restless and wants to leave; Wordell gets him to stay. T.J. is now talking about the Simms brothers beating him after they knocked out the Barnetts. Jamison softly asks T.J. if he knew he was doing something wrong, and he says yes. He says he only did it because the brothers told him to.
The prosecutor, Mr. Macabee, criticizes T.J. for dragging the name of two hardworking young men through the mud. T.J. cracks and begins to cry and Judge Haversack has to stop the lawyer. Cassie sees that the spectators’ faces have hardened after hearing the lawyer talk about the blood on T.J.’s hands.
Reverend Gabson comes up and testifies that T.J. was fine at the church.
R.W. comes back up and Jamison asks him about the timeline of events and why they went into town. He asks R.W. to describe his truck, and the young man is reluctant. Mr. Justice Overton, a respected judge, says he saw that truck earlier than they said. R.W. grows irate and the Judge has to calm him down.
Both of the lawyers give their summations, Jamison explaining that young T.J. has grown up thinking white men can tell him what to do and he must obey. He murdered no one but was merely gullible and caught up in these events. Macabee reminds the jury of the dead man and said justice must be served.
The jury leaves to cast their votes. Mrs. Wade Jamison comes over to the children and asks where their papa is. Jamison himself volunteers to take them home once he keenly sees that they are there without permission and their families might worry. The jury returns quickly. The unanimous verdict is that T.J. will get the death penalty.
The courtroom erupts in clapping, but Mrs. Avery screams. T.J. is stunned, and then yelps like an animal. Mr. Jamison tells them they need to leave, but Stacey says he must say goodbye to T.J. The boy smiles wanly at them before he is taken away. They never see him again.
Mildred Taylor has said that she wanted to depict the lives of the African Americans who lived before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and demonstrate how their character, perseverance, and determination helped pave the way for the Movement. Thus, in this novel she supplies the reader with characters like Mama, Papa, Mr. Morrison, Mrs. Lee Annie, and Uncle Hammer to showcase how black men and women in the 1930s did their best to push back against the strictures of their racist society and maintain their dignity and ambition as much as they could. Young people such as Cassie and Stacey would be in their thirties when the Movement began and would have the ability to invoke the examples of their older parents and relatives when determining how best to agitate for change in nonviolent and morally upright ways.
Setting her novel during the Great Depression allows Taylor to reveal how African Americans were even more deleteriously affected by the economic crash due to the pervasive racism of the day. She provides a wealth of historical details for her young readers, familiarizing them with New Deal programs such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and the Works Progress Administration. She includes small lessons on Reconstruction, voting rights, sharecropping, and the legacy of Jim Crow. There are also subtle commentaries on gender and family dynamics. While ostensibly a children’s book, the novel is rich with historical insight.
In this first section of the novel, the brutal realities of segregation and racism are quite manifest. Young T.J. Avery certainly isn’t what we would call a “good” boy. He is a bit of a troublemaker and takes up with the wrong crowd–a crowd that gets him involved in a robbery and a murder. However, T.J. has grown up in a society, as Mr. Jamison says, that requires blacks to obey whites. The Simms brothers impressed T.J. but also felt limited in his ability to push back against their plans. Furthermore, the legal system is completely rigged against blacks. He does not have a jury of his peers, the courtroom is filled with hostile observers, and even the Judge is not exactly impartial. His testimony is picked apart while white testifiers are given the benefit of the doubt. Everywhere the specter of race looms, for if T.J. is allowed to go free whites will fear this “violent” young black man and his (fake) black accomplices. This trial is reminiscent of the trial in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in which Tom was convicted even though the evidence clearly exonerated him, as well as real-life examples of the failure of the justice system’s claim to be colorblind.
Besides the historical aspects of the novel, the story is also strong in character development. Cassie Logan is the narrator of this tale and she has a fierce, impassioned, and deeply independent personality. She is also quite stubborn and even though she has a strong sense of right and wrong, she is still a child and sometimes cannot resist her baser urges; the scene where she covets and subsequently wins Son-Boy’s marble even though her father expressly forbid it is genuinely charming in its realistic depiction of childhood whims and desires. Stacey is also finely drawn. He has the stoicism and broodiness of a young man growing up in a world that already seems like it will be a disappointment as well as tempestuousness and stubbornness.
This is not just a children’s story, however: the adult characters play just as big a role. Family and community are incredibly important. Adults pass down life lessons and try to prepare their children for the world they will inherit. They face problems of their own and seek to maintain a strong sense of character not just for their children but also for themselves. They explain, guide, comfort, teach, and nurture. Papa in particular is an admirable man–slow to anger, wise, filled with a strong sense of justice and compassion, respectable and respected. He is not perfect, of course, but he defies stereotypes of African American men as shiftless, lustful, and louche.