Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 653
John Grisham’s semi-autobiographical novel recounts one September in the life of seven-year-old Luke, a poor, baseball-loving, farm boy in 1950s Arkansas. His family is struggling to wrest a meager living by growing cotton on rented acreage. One important thing that Luke stresses is the near impossibility for famers to pull themselves out of the cycle of debt. His mother insists that he learn the day-to-day practicalities of the family business. Cotton is almost certain not to pay for those who must rent land. She also allows him to fantasize about the future he might lead—just so long as it involves leaving the farm.
[T]he math was so easy you wondered why anyone would want to be a farmer. My mother made sure I understood the numbers. The two of us had already made a secret pact that I would never, under any circumstances, stay on the farm. I would finish all twelve grades and go play for the Cardinals.
As the story is set in 1952, the Korean conflict is going on and many young men have shipped out. Jesse’s younger brother, Ricky, is serving in Korea. His absence allows Luke to have his room, which the boy has mixed feelings about; he would rather have his uncle home safe, so they can play baseball. He cries himself to sleep, worrying that Ricky will never come home.
Ricky was in Korea. It had been snowing when he left us in February, three days after his nineteenth birthday. It was cold in Korea, too. I knew that much from a story on the radio. I was safe and warm in his bed while he was lying in a trench shooting and getting shot at.
One of the subplots concerns Ricky’s relationship with a girl, Libby Latcher. They had not been formally dating before he left, because she was only fifteen, and she is now pregnant. Everyone wonders if they will marry if or when he returns. The situation is complicated because, although the Chandlers are poor, her family is much poorer. Their working arrangement is sharecropping, which means they almost certainly end up each year in considerable debt to the landowner. One day Luke goes with his parents to visit the Latcher family at their home.
I studied their house, a square little box, and wondered once more how so many people could live in such a tiny place . . . I felt very sorry for them . . . It seemed cruel for anyone to live in such conditions. They had no shoes. Their clothes were so old and worn, they were embarrassed to go to town. And because they had no radio, they couldn’t listen to the Cardinals.
A strong element in the story is the racial antagonism of the poor white farm laborers toward the Mexican migrant workers. The “hill people” who come down to the flatlands just to work the harvest consider themselves superior to the Mexicans, and one young man, Hank, decides to torment them. Even though Jesse cannot determine for sure that Hank is responsible, and he feels his hands are tied. Jesse condones neither racism nor violence, but if he accuses Hank, the entire family will take offense and take off, leaving them short-handed for the harvest. One of the Mexican men who escaped injury explains what they saw from their sleeping loft in the barn.
Luis slowly opened the loft door . . . and a missile landed squarely in his face. It was a rock from the road in front of our house. Whoever threw it had saved it for such an occasion, a direct shot at one of the Mexicans. Dirt clods were fine for making noise, but a rock was used to maim.
Because it seems fruitless to pursue justice through official channels, Hank continues, and escalates, his attacks. After a knife fight, however, he is killed and his body is later found in the river.