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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The story begins with the Logan children on their way to school. They walk to an all-black school and have to play a cruel game every day as the driver of the bus of white children enjoys racing the bus past the Logans just to see them get covered with dust or mud, depending on the weather. The children try to time their walk so they can get up on a bank before the bus goes by, but usually they fail and are trapped between steep banks and the ditch.
This year is Little Manís first year of school. He is a very intelligent little six year old with a fetish for cleanliness and is frustrated from day one when the bus races by and sprays dust all over his best clothes.
He will start out in the same room as his 4 th grade sister Cassie as the first grade teacher has not returned yet. The children start the year by getting new books for the first time-only the books arenít new, but are beat up cast-offs that have been labeled as suitable for the "nigra" children. Little Man first complains that the book is dirty, then sees the cover label and throws the book on the floor and stomps on it rebels. He refuses to pick it up at the teacherís order. Cassie sticks up for him and both children get a whipping. Their mother, also a teacher, sticks up for them and pastes brown paper over the school district label of the books for her own students as well as those of her children.
The Logan children are more fortunate than the rest of the children as their parents own the land which they farm rather than having to sharecrop the land as most of the area farmers do. As the school year progresses, other little complications occur among the children. Stacey finds a way to get even with the bus, and T.J. Avery, an obnoxious 14 year old, entices the Logan children into disobedient things that get them in trouble-until he fails his grade for cheating and drops out of school altogether. Furious at Cassieís mother for "failing" him, T.J. reports Mrs. Logan for "defacing" the school books and for teaching material that is not in the books. His actions cost Mrs. Logan her job. T.J. also begins to hang around with some trouble making white boys who promise they will get him anything he wants. He doesnít realize that they are just using him until it is too late.
In the meantime, the Logan family is struggling to hang onto their land. Papa takes a stand, however, when men of the Berry family are falsely accused of bothering a white woman and are dowsed in kerosene and set on fire by the Wallace brothers. Papa tries to lead a boycott of the Wallace store by shopping in distant Vicksburg. At first, the other sharecroppers back him up, but threats of being kicked off the land and sent to chain gangs gradually force them back to the Wallace store where they are being overcharged for their supplies.
Papa makes one last trip to Vicksburg, taking Stacey and Mr. Morrison with him. While he is doing his shopping, someone meddles with the wheels on the wagon, causing them to fall off on the road on the way home. Papa is trying to put the wheels back on when white men pull up behind them in a pick up truck. One of them fires a gun and injures Papa; startled, the mule bolts and the wagon runs over Papaís leg. Mr. Morrison singlehandedly takes on the three white men, breaking arms and effectively getting them to back off.
The incident prevents Papa from returning to his job on the railroad. Events are coming to a head as the bank forecloses on the mortgage and rumors build of changes in T.J. who is openly running with the Simms brothers.
The climax of the story comes when T.J. and the Simms brothers break into Barnettís Mercantile in Strawberry. The Simms brothers, who are wearing stocking masks, break into the display case and take out a pearl handled gun that T.J. had longed for. They are trying to break into another cabinet when the Barnetts appear on the stairs from their apartment. Mr. Barnett struggles with Melvin, trying to get his cash box back. R.W. smashes him on the head with an ax and shoves Mrs. Barnett so she hits her head on a stove. Believing they may be dead, T.J. threatens to tell the whole story, but the Simms boys beat him up and then take off to play pool. When he is finally able to move, T.J. makes his way to the Logan home and taps on Cassieís window to be let in. He tells his story to Cassie and Stacey whom he persuades to help him get home. T.J. is no sooner home than a string of cars appears and stops at the Avery home. While the Logan children watch from the woods, the Wallaces and other white men drag the Averys out of the house, knock the girls and parents around, and drag T.J. out on his knees. There is talk of hanging him.
Mr. Jamison, the attorney, appears and tries to get the men to let him and the sheriff take T.J.. Stacey sends Cassie and the younger boys back home to get Papa. David Logan and Mr. Morrison go after Stacey, but while they are gone the thunderstorm breaks. A section of the cotton field close to the woods is suddenly on fire, ostensibly from a lightning strike. The danger of the fire getting into the woods and then to other plantations deters the white men from their vengeful intentions as all spend the night fighting the fire. Cassie later realizes that her father set the fire himself to stop the hanging.
The story ends tragically; Mr. Barnett dies from his injuries and Cassie realizes that while her family has managed to keep their land, T.J. will not keep his life. The implication is that T.J. will be convicted of robbery and murder and that the white boys who instigated the whole thing will go free.