Like many of Ernest J. Gaines' works, this one takes place in a fictional town in Louisiana and concerns the struggles of southern Blacks before and up to the Civil Rights movement (as in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman). In this story, the protagonist is a young black boy named James. James is an old soul in a child's body. He is forced to concern himself with adult problems, problems way beyond those of normal eight-year-olds. He worries about not having enough money, not having enough food, not worrying his mother. In the story, James has a toothache from a rotten tooth, but he fears telling his mother about it because he knows there is no money to take him to a dentist.
His mother, Octavia, is harsh with him. From our point of view, perhaps, we might even call her mean. She beats him up for refusing to kill a bird that he finds beautiful because they need it for food. This is another reason why he is afraid to tell her about his tooth.
As the work progresses, however, we find that although the relationship between mother and son seems unloving, Octavia is also a prisoner of her environment and she is raising James the only way she knows how -- to make him tough and able to survive life's hardships.
There is a great analysis of this work right here on enotes.