Fernie May Rosen, the central character of “Fern,” is beautiful but unhappy. She is the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and a white Jewish man, and she is thus doubly a social outsider. She spends most of her days listlessly sitting on the porch of her rural Georgia home, the languid object of many men’s desires. Her remoteness and sexual indifference lead her many lovers to abandon her, but they remain forever under her spell and bring her gifts as signs of their adoration.
In “Blood-Burning Moon,” Tom Burwell is portrayed as a gentle introvert. When he is frustrated by his inability to express his feelings for Louisa, however, he flies into a rage, leading to the story’s tragic conclusion.
In “Bona and Paul,” the central figure is Paul Johnson, a black man who is light-skinned enough to pass as white. Paul’s uncertainty about his racial status makes him aloof and inaccessible. Although his white girlfriend Bona is attracted to him because of his blackness, his ambivalence and his denial of a part of his heritage cause her to leave him.
Ralph Kabnis, the central character of the book’s final section, is a northern black teacher of southern descent who comes to rural Georgia in search of his roots. He has difficulty adapting to his new environment, however; sensitive and neurotic, he cannot accept what he sees as the submissiveness of the South’s black population. When he is confronted by the apparent indifference of his fellow African Americans to their situation, the results are catastrophic for him. He loses his teaching job and begins working as an apprentice in a wagon shop, but his spiritual and emotional decline continues. By the end of the work, he is a childlike, dependent failure.