The story is set in the years immediately after the American Civil War, during the era of Reconstruction. Specifically, the events happen between the months of April and September 1865. Earlier in that year, an order had been issued by General William Tecumseh Sherman, which was to have given out a free forty acres of land to former slave families. Administered by the Freedmen's Bureau, abandoned or uninhabited land was given out in South Carolina and Georgia. The program lasted only a few months before it was revoked, however. In September of 1865, Circular 15 rescinded the the order, and of the many freed slaves who had been given their own land, only a handful were allowed to keep it.
The land that was set aside for the program was located on the islands and along the coast of Georgia. The setting in the book is not specific in regards to cities the characters pass through, or the trails that they take. The author does tell us that Pascal, his brother Gideon, and Nelly begin their journey from a plantation somewhere in South Carolina. They pass through at least nine towns in search of a Freedmen's Bureau, and cross a covered bridge over the Savannah River into Georgia. Once in Georgia, at a possibly fictional town called River Stop, the freed slaves find a Freedmen's Bureau, and are granted title to land of their own. Georgia lies to the southwest of South Carolina, and the Savannah River lies along the border between the two states. Since most of the land given in the forty acres program was along the coast, and the characters' mode of transportation was by walking, they most probably left a plantation somewhere near the southern tip of South Carolina, and crossed over into the eastern part of Georgia, near the coast.