Inspired by his childhood in Arkansas, it is Grisham's first major work outside the legal thriller genre in which he established himself. Set in the late summer and early fall of 1952, its story is told through the eyes of seven-year-old Luke Chandler, the youngest in a family of cotton farmers struggling to harvest their crop and earn enough to settle their debts. The novel portrays the experiences that bring him from a world of innocence into one of harsh reality.
The story begins to unfold as Luke and his grandfather Eli, also known as Pappy, search for migrant workers to help them with the cotton picking. They initially consider themselves lucky to hire the Spruills, a family of "hill people," and a few Mexican migrant workers who annually come to the area looking for work.
Aside from working long hours under the hot sun in the fields, Luke's life is fairly idyllic until he sees overly aggressive and mentally unstable Hank Spruill attack three boys from the notorious Sisco family, one of whom is beaten so severely he dies from his wounds. Hank arrogantly identifies Luke as a friendly witness who can support his version of the event, and the fearful boy backs up his story, although the adults in his life, including local sheriff Stick Powers, suspect he's too frightened to admit the truth.
When Luke sees Cowboy, one of the Mexicans, later murder Hank and toss his body into the river, Cowboy threatens to kill Luke's mother if Luke tells anyone what he saw. Luke also learns that his admired Uncle Ricky, fighting in the Korean War, may have fathered a child with a daughter of their poverty-stricken sharecropping neighbors.
Grisham surrounds these dramatic moments with descriptive passages of life in the rural South and the ordinary events that fill Luke's weekly routine. His hard work in the fields is preceded by a hearty breakfast of eggs, ham, biscuits, and the one cup of coffee...