Winter arrives, and the days are cold, grey, and still. The children trudge to school and Papa and Mr. Morrison do winter chores. Mama teaches children after school who need extra help, and even students who do not like school love coming to learn from her. School usually ends around March so the children can help their parents on the land. Education is valued, but the crops are seen as more important. Most children know they will grow up to be sharecroppers if that is what their parents do.
Moe Turner proclaims that his family will make enough so he does not have to do this again next year, which Cassie finds foolish. Stacey shushes her. Moe sadly says even though his father gave up, he will not–he has to get out. He says he might get a job with the Works Progress Administration, one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. He says he is tired of the Montiers, the people for whom he and his family farm.
Joe Billy Montier and his sister Selma drive by and ask Moe if he wants a ride. They are friendly but Moe politely refuses.
At home Papa is talking to Mr. John Farnsworth, the county extension agent. Cassie and the boys know that Papa had been asked to plow up a portion of the land and would be paid by the government to do so, but that the name on the check was ‘Harlan Granger’ because he was the first name of mortgage holders. Granger does not care about the money but does not want the Logans to have it since he has always coveted their land. Thus, the check cannot be cashed. Papa will have to pay a cotton tax, though, now that he is not signing a new contract to get government money.
Not long after Mr. Farnsworth leaves, Harlan Granger himself drives by in his new Packard. He motions Papa over; after complimenting him on his good sense (in a condescending way), he offers to pay the tax for him. Papa thanks him but declines the offer, and Granger tells him to think about it before he drives away. Cassie and Stacey ask why the man was being so nice and Papa explains that his name would be put on their tax records and could be used to take their land away from them someday.
Papa explains to the children about the falling prices on crops due to the depression, and how the Agricultural Adjustment Administration is trying to raise them by paying farmers to farm less or paying them to destroy their crops. It is hardest for sharecroppers, he explains, and their landowners seem to be doing quite well. Cassie muses that this is how Granger can afford his Packard, and they all laugh.
On the way to school the next day, the children discuss how their father might not be going back to work on the railroad this year, as he’d done in years past until he got shot and his leg broken in a skirmish with the Wallace brothers.
The children hear the bell ringing and hurry off to their respective classrooms. It is a dismal, boring day, but Cassie perks up when she hears her teacher, Mrs. Myrtis Crandell, mention Theodore Bilbo. She asks the class if anyone knows who he is, and Cassie volunteers that he is the governor of Mississippi. Pleased, Mrs. Crandell says he was, but he is now Senator. Cassie criticizes him, and Mrs. Crandell strongly rebukes her.
After class Mrs. Crandell tells Cassie she cannot say things like that. Cassie replies that her father says Bilbo is a devil. The teacher sharply says she will not lose her job like Cassie’s mother did. As Cassie turns to leave, Mrs. Crandell seems to want to apologize, but she does not.
Outside a car with Joe Billy Montier and two other white landowners’ sons drives by, and the boys try to flirt with young women. Another teacher yells for them to leave.
After school Cassie is summoned to Mrs. Lee Annie’s. She says she’d like Cassie to help her do some writing for her. Wordell is at the shack as well, and after he leaves Cassie asks why he never talks. Mrs. Lee Annie says he speaks when he has something worth saying, and it is usually worth heeding.
Mrs. Lee Annie shows her a copy of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution that she got because she wanted to know what it said about her, and that there are literacy tests based on this. Cassie wonders if she is planning on trying to vote, and she replies she is not. She also asks Cassie to help her read the text, and tells her to ask her mother for permission.
Cassie heads home and asks her parents. Papa says yes, but only if her little brothers accompany her. Cassie does not understand but has to agree. She asks Papa if Wordell has mental issues, and he thoughtfully says no.
Wordell is certainly peculiar and a mystery; most people wondered if he was mad. Cassie’s curiosity about him is piqued as she spends more time with Mrs. Lee Annie. One day Mrs. Lee Annie has to rush Wordell to get help after there is blood on his hands. Cassie is not sure why.
One day Cassie sees Wordell alone and gets enough nerve to talk to him. She tries talking about music after asking him if he’d seen her brothers. Wordell is silent. She asks him if Joe is his best friend and Wordell’s expression softens. Cassie talks on, saying she likes Joe even though he is slow, and then remembers the time at the belfry. Suddenly she has an epiphany that Wordell did not do anything to Doris Anne, but actually protected her and covered for Joe. Wordell says nothing but picks up his axe. Cassie is scared and tries to run away but trips and falls. Wordell looks at her and says her brothers are by the stream. Cassie runs away, grateful to escape. Later she realizes it was the first time he’d ever spoken to her.
The children are heading to school. They encounter Jeremy Simms, whom they have not seen for a long time. Jeremy is friendly and kind, and Stacey always seems to have a difficult time with this white boy. He is friendly back, though, and Jeremy excitedly tells them he had pictures taken of himself. He gives one to Stacey and to Cassie.
One Saturday morning before the review session, Dube asks Cassie how their family came by their land. She explains that it used to be Granger land during Reconstruction, but parts were sold for taxes, and a Yankee named ‘Mr. Hollenbeck’ bought it and then sold it off. Her grandpa bought two hundred acres and Mr. Granger bought more back over time.
Many of the kids seem to admire the Logan home and land when they come over. The review session begins. Cassie goes outside to talk to Mr. Morrison and Papa, who are looking at Dynamite the bull. Papa is wondering about selling it.
Two men arrive, one of them white. The white man says he is Morris Wheeler from the union, and the other man is John Moses. They explain about the union’s purpose of getting tenants and sharecroppers together. Papa is quiet and thoughtful, and asks why he was approached if he owns his own land. Wheeler says it is because he is respected and may be able to help get people interested. Papa is a bit surprised and perturbed when he hears that it is a mixture of colored and white people, but he says he will think about it. Wheeler is pleased and adds that he hopes Papa will think about letting them use his barn for a meeting. The meetings will be separated based on race at first.
Later the children ride horses, Cassie exulting in the power of Lady, her favorite horse. A yellow car comes up the road and they realize it is their Uncle Hammer, Papa’s brother. He greets everyone, including his mother Big Ma, and says he has a couple days and thought he’d help with planting. Big Ma makes food and he talks of his travels North and South. The children listen in awe, as they’ve always been a bit impressed by their uncle. He was known for his temper in particular and they never want it directed at them.
The adults talk about the union and then the possibility of Papa going to the railroad, which makes Mama tense.
That afternoon Hammer volunteers to drive Papa over to the Wigginses and the children accompany. This is not Uncle Hammer’s original car; he used to have a Packard but had to get rid of it. Along the way they see Joe Billy and Stuart Walker, two white boys, talking with Jacey Peters, a young black woman. They stop and Uncle Hammer tells the boys to leave her alone. Joe Billy wants to obey, but Stuart is mouthy. Uncle Hammer gets out and threatens the boy, but it is clear to all that Stuart’s power comes from his white skin. He grows insolent.
Cassie whispers to Stacey that she does not understand what the altercation was about. Soberly, he tells her to be wary of white boys. She is confused and annoyed.
Uncle Hammer, who never likes a dirty car, works his anger off by washing it. Dressed dapperly, he joins the family as they all head off to church. The Great Faith community always likes when he visits because they see him as a success. People gather around, greeting him and admiring the car. In particular, Joe admires it. Some people tease him, but Papa steps in and asks if he can give Joe a ride.
Before he leaves with an elated Joe, Papa mentions he might be interested in the union. Talk turns back to the car. Someone asks why Hammer sold the Packard if it was so nice. This hushes the crowd and everyone turns to look at the man, a heavyset and dark-skinned fellow whom people do not know. Hammer is silent then asks if the man knows him. The man says he is Jake Willis and is a friend of Jesse Randall. Jesse looks nervous and awkward. He says he has come to town for a government job.
Jake then asks how he was so lucky to have a Packard if black people had such a hard time affording them. Hammer says there was no luck involved. Jake suddenly apologizes and says he meant no trouble. As Stacey and Cassie pass by Jesse and Jake, they hear Jesse telling his friend not to mess with Hammer because he is crazy.
Inside church, the children fall asleep during Reverend Gabson’s long sermon. After church they see someone else new but slightly familiar. Mama is excited because this person is her Cousin Bud Rankin, who is actually her nephew but is three years older than her. Everyone greets each other enthusiastically. He is a handsome and friendly man.
That night they share family stories and sing. They reminisce about Bud being a ladies’ man. Finally someone asks why Bud is back visiting, and, hesitantly, he says his wife is here. Haltingly, he says he had married a Northern girl but they are not together right now and he came to talk to her. They also have a fifteen-year old daughter, Suzella. His manner is odd, and finally he admits he married a white woman.
Silence descends. Cassie thinks about how white people always seem so distant and are better left alone. It is okay to be courteous, but one must also be aloof. Hammer looks at Bud angrily and calls him a fool. Mama tries to calm Hammer. Mr. Morrison says he is going off to bed and the children are sent to bed as well.
The next morning things are uncomfortable. Mama tries to make Cousin Bud feel welcome. The children privately discuss the revelation, and Stacey bitterly tells Christopher-John that there is no way a black person can love a white person. Cassie and her younger brothers are startled by his tone.
Bud and Mama talk about how he loves his wife and he sees her as a person and not as white. Mama has a hard time understanding or agreeing with him. He mentions his daughter, who is light-skinned enough to pass for white and seems to want nothing to do with being colored. He asks Mama if she can come stay here because it would be good for her. Mama agrees and says she will talk to David.
Stacey, Cassie, Christopher-John, and Little Man walk to school. Ahead they see two cars empty with the doors open. They hide and watch four men get into one car and drive off. Drops of blood lead them to a body–it is Mr. Farnsworth, the county agent. He looks dead but is still alive. They are unsure what to do because white people may think they did it. They decide to go get Jeremy, their white friend.
They go to Jeremy’s place and see him working on the edge of his field. They tell him what happened and he goes with them. First they think of taking him to Granger’s, but then decide on Mr. and Mrs. Sutton because they won’t ask a lot of questions. Since Jeremy knows how to drive, they take Farnsworth’s car, put him in the driver’s seat, and then blare the horn. They run off and watch as the Suttons come out.
The adults at home wonder about the possible repercussions of the children’s help. The children study, and Hammer comes in to say hello. Suddenly he sees the picture of Jeremy and asks Cassie if it is hers. His anger is palpable and she is afraid. Stacey tries to explain, and Hammer becomes angry with him as well.
Hammer gives a long speech in which he talks about the way white men use colored women and how colored men cannot even look at a white woman without being possibly beaten up or killed. He directs a rude comment towards Bud as well, and Mama grows angry. Hammer throws the picture of Jeremy in the fire.
One of the reasons why this novel is so compelling is that it is unapologetic about its narrative position–a young black girl is telling her story–and because it blatantly depicts the tensions between blacks and whites and absolutely does not let the latter off the hook. White landowners like Mr. Granger are condescending and rapacious. Young white men like Stuart are arrogant and predatory. Due to the racial system instituted and upheld by whites, blacks are limited politically and economically. Along with these big disparities are those in behavior, demeanor, gesture, attitude, and deportment. Whites constantly condescend to blacks, treating them like children or imbeciles. There are codes of behavior for blacks that must be followed or violence may ensue. Even Uncle Hammer, who is older and stronger than Stuart, must bow down to the whiteness of the boy’s skin.
Taylor’s white characters are not one-dimensional, however. Mr. Jamison is, according to Papa, the best man, white or black, whom he knows. He is a tireless crusader for equality and justice. Jeremy Simms comes from a racist family but seems to be unaffected by their prejudices, embracing the Logan kids as his close friends and helping them as much as he can. Mr. Farnsworth is reluctant to bring bad news and is harmed by other white men. Finally, Morris Wheeler is certainly no saint and expresses views about social equality that are far from progressive, but he recognizes that a union of blacks and whites would be advantageous for both.
The proposed union is woven throughout the text. Like voting and landowning, it is something that is possible for blacks but far from likely for most. The laws do not explicitly prohibit blacks from being in unions in the 1930s but the impediments are vast. It is scary to push against powerful whites; these whites are experts at stoking fears of racial unrest and socialist conspiracies. Similarly, according to the 15th Amendment voting cannot be prohibited on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Voting is thus a constitutional right but almost all African Americans in the South saw their franchise stripped away due to threats of violence and other repercussions, absurdly difficult literacy tests, and high poll taxes. Finally, blacks can own land, but, thanks to the failure of Reconstruction to provide a real path for former slaves to own their own land and be economically self-sufficient, they are usually stuck working for whites in conditions not too different from slavery. The Turner family is an apposite example of black farmers who cannot escape the endless cycle of sharecropping.
Amid all of these heady issues is still the story of Cassie Logan, a young girl trying to navigate her world. She is frustrated with her older brother because he seems to have no time for her. She is annoyed when people tell her things she does not understand and that do not seem applicable. She is fascinated by the enigmatic Wordell and has to learn to let go of her erroneous assumptions and see the real him. As mentioned in the previous analysis, this is quite similar to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: both are books narrated by children who try to understand the confusing adult world they inhabit and who come to let go of their fears of unknown, mysterious neighbors.