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One afternoon, Richard’s mom breaks the news that they’ll be moving to Elaine, Arkansas, and visit their grandma in Mississippi on the way.
Richard is crazy excited. All he can think about is leaving. He rushes to pack and even leaves a shirt behind because he just doesn't care. He wants to get outta there.
His mom forces him to say goodbye to the kids at the orphanage, and then he’s out.
In the middle of all this excitement, here are two paragraphs of grown-up Wright’s thoughts plastered onto the story. He’s thinking that even though people say that black people are full of emotion, it’s not true. He thinks that the only emotions they have are fear and hate.
When they get to Mississippi, Granny’s house is awesome. It’s huge, there are lots of places to play hide and seek, and Richard and his brother can show off their worldliness to the country kids in the neighborhood.
Granny needs some help paying the rent on her new place, and so she rents out a room to a schoolteacher named Ella. Of course, Richard has the hugest crush on her. Gosh, we practically have a crush on her.
Ella is always reading, and one day Richard asks Ella what she is reading. She hesitates at first, but then she tells him. Ella reads the story of Bluebeard and his wives to Richard. His mind is blown, sorta like how people reacted when Avatar came out in 3D.
This lovey-dovey scene is interrupted by Granny, who screams at Ella and calls her a devil worshipper because she read to Richard. Obviously. The one with the book is the evil one.
This scene is the beginning of Richard’s fascination with books and literature. Because Granny stops Ella before the story is over, Richard pledges to get as many books as he can.
One day, Richard’s mom is very sick, and Grandma is taking care of the kids. Richard and his brother are supposed to be taking a bath, but they are more concerned with splashing each other than anything else. Eventually Grandma has had enough of their foolishness and starts to bathe Richard herself.
Now, this is the part of the story that makes us question Richard as a narrator—heck, as a person with two brain cells. When his grandma is washing his butt, Richard tells her to kiss his you-know-what when she’s done. Feel free to throw the book down along with us.
Why did he do it? We don’t know. He doesn’t even know. But as soon as he says it, you just know what’s coming.
What’s coming is a several-page-long chase scene that Richard loses. Massively. Suffice it to say that Granny doesn’t take too kindly to Richard's words, and neither does anyone else. He gets one heck of a beating from nearly the whole household.
Grandma decides that this whole to-do is the fault of the evil books. She blames Ella and kicks her out of the house.
This is the first time that Richard realizes that words are important, and saying the wrong words can make bad things happen.
After this exciting scene, Richard gives us a montage about the rest of the days at Granny’s. He tells us about bees, drinking milk, and the feeling of freedom with evocative language. And then finally the family heads off to Arkansas.
At the train station, Richard notices that people have to stand in two lines: one for black people and one for white people. He wants to go peep in the white people’s cabin, which is obviously a bad idea, and his mother tells him to shut up.
Richard keeps at it, and they end up having a "conversation" about Richard’s grandmother. Richard is mad, because he can tell that his mom really doesn’t want to be having this conversation right now.
When they reach Arkansas, Richard sees that Aunt Maggie’s house is nice and cozy. There’s a dusty road with lots of flowers, and nice dirt to play in.
He also enjoys smashing bees in his hands. This is a dangerous pastime and it’s not surprising what happens next. A bee stings him when he fails to smash it thoroughly. At least he learns his lesson and never smooshes one again.
Aunt Maggie’s husband, Uncle Hoskins, works in a saloon so they have tons of moolah and Richard can finally eat.
He’s so hungry that he eats until his stomach hurts. Then, because he’s afraid the food will disappear, he takes some and hides it in his pockets and around the house like some kind of hoarder. Finally he gets that the food will still be there tomorrow and the day after and calms down.
Richard and Uncle Hoskins are riding in a horse and buggy one day (remember, this is still the beginning of the twentieth century) when Uncle Hoskins asks Richard if he wants to see his horse drink out of the middle of the Mississippi River.
Duh, Richard says. The horse can't do that.
So Uncle Hoskins leads the horse—still pulling the buggy—into the river. The water is up to its neck and it’s freaking out. Also freaking out: Richard, who nearly jumps into the river. Do your uncles ever make these kinds of jokes? You know, those ones that are never funny and kind of weird? Ours do, but this is pretty crazy, even for a weird uncle joke.
At the end of it all, Uncle Hoskins doesn’t get why Richard is so scared. Never mind that he thought he was going to die. When they get on land, Richard rushes off of the buggy. The two walk home, and Richard, in a recurring theme, never trusts his uncle again.
Just like Richard’s dad, Uncle Hoskins sleeps during the day. Unlike Richard's dad, he doesn’t mind noise and he sleeps with a gun over his head. Why? Because white men want to kill him.
One morning, Uncle Hoskins doesn’t come home from work. By nighttime, Aunt Maggie is freaking out.
Eventually a boy brings them the bad news. Uncle Hoskins has been shot. Not only that, but his killers are coming after all of his relatives, too.
Time to move. Again. The family hurriedly packs their bags and gets out of town. Uncle is buried, but no one sees him: no funeral, no mourning, nothing. Just fleeing town. And let us point out that Richard has not even had one full year of school yet.
The sisters end up back in the warm, slightly paranoid safety of Grandma’s bosom. A few days later Richard is playing in a field by digging in the dirt with a knife (you know, the usual games) when something crazy happens. He hears a noise and looks up to see a wave of identical-looking black men coming at him in unison. He is so scared that he can’t even scream.
We’re pretty scared too, because we have no idea what is going on and it reads like something out of a sci-fi movie. We really feel the confusion a kid who is seeing something for the first time might feel.
When Richard gets home his mom tells him that they are soldiers who will be fighting the Germans in World War I. She tries to explain but Richard is too young to really get it.
Another day Richard sees a herd of elephants. Yeah, we know what you’re saying: "Elephants aren’t native to Arkansas, Shmoop." Well, you know that, and we know that, but Richard doesn’t know that.
Richard isn’t scared of the elephants like he was with the soldiers, which is surprising because we’d be pretty freaked out if elephants were chilling on our street.
Hang on, because this next bit is pretty trippy:
The elephants have faces of men, and white men are watching them. Richard asks one of the elephants what’s up, but the elephant doesn’t answer. The elephant gestures to the white guys that are watching them. Richard is scared of the white guys (although not of the elephants that can understand English), and he runs home.
This scene reads like something out of Alice in Wonderland—but there’s a rational explanation. Richard tells his mom that there are elephants in the street, and like any good mom she looks at him like he has gone crazy. She looks out and tells him that they aren’t elephants, but a chain gang.
Richard, who is disturbingly precocious, thinks it’s a bit strange that he sees only black men in the chain gang since he’s pretty sure that white men commit crimes, too. His mom’s excuse is that people are harder on the black men.
Oh yeah, why did he think they were elephants? Because they wore stripes, which he associated with zebras, which he connected to elephants, which then became a chain gang. Simple, right?
Some time later, Richard’s mom decides that it is time to move again. Everyone is tired of Granny’s religiosity, so they decide to move to a place called West Helena.
But Granny’s religiosity was probably better than their new apartment, which is infested with vermin, not exactly in the nicest of neighborhoods, and plain nasty-smelling. Welcome home, Wright family.
Richard and the other kids in the neighborhood sneak into the trains in the locomotive yard in front of their house when no one is looking and pretend they are driving. They also play in the sewage with metal, old toothbrushes, and dead animals. This is pretty gross and sounds like a good way to get a whole range of diseases, especially before routine immunization, but at least they’re not zoned out on their PS3s. We guess.
Richard’s mom and his Aunt Maggie work all day, leaving Richard and his brother a dime each to get them through the day. Every day, the brothers go to the corner store and buy some cookies and soda for lunch. Sugar is the best part of the food pyramid.
You would guess that because he faces racial oppression, Richard would be totally understanding about other races and ethnicities. You would be wrong. He and the other kids have a whole repertoire of racist songs that they sing every time they see a Jewish person, and Richard shares them with us just in case our repertoire of racist songs is getting stale.
One afternoon, a girl suggests that something is going on in the house next to Richard's. Richard has no idea what she’s talking about, because he is, as usual, clueless. Now he’s curious. Three guesses, but you’ll probably only need one: prostitution. Or, at least, a room in which a revolving cast of people get it on. So yeah, probably prostitution.
Richard isn’t the sneakiest of kids, so the people he spies on notice that someone is lurking around. Soon the landlady is after him. She tells him to open the door, and in another of those mind-blowingly stupid moments, he opens it.
Eventually his mom and aunt (who also had no idea what was going on, so maybe cluelessness runs in the family) get in on the spying action. In the end the landlady kicks them out because his mom won’t punish Richard.
Now, something else strange is happening. At night a strange man, who seems to be dressed like Malcolm X, is sneaking into the house. When Richard asks his mom about it, she tells him that he was dreaming. Later Richard finds out that this guy is his "new uncle," and that he and his aunt Maggie are going to the North.
Apparently white people are after his "uncle," which scares the bejeebers out of Richard. In order to make sure the boys keep their mouths shut, "uncle" bribes them with presents like a poodle called Betsy. (Here’s a hint: never give someone a present that requires food and water.)
One night Richard wakes up to craziness.
His mom is packing, Aunt Maggie is crying, and "uncle" is looking out the window. Here’s what happened: he stole some money, which is bad enough. There was a witness, which is worse. And his rational solution is to knock her unconscious and burn everything, which is just so bad that we can’t even come up with a word for it. Anyway, "uncle" and Aunt Maggie ride off into the sunset—or sunrise—and neither Richard nor we ever figure out what happened.
After Aunt Maggie leaves, his mom is all out of money, and Richard is hungry. Again. So, Richard decides to sell his dog. He goes into a white neighborhood alone for the first time, and finally one lady wants to buy the dog. The thing is, Richard remembers that white people killed his uncle and made his aunt run away. In the end, Richard refuses to sell Betsy.
A week later, Betsy was crushed to death under a wagon. Now he has no food, no dog, and no money. It’s a bit ironic in the Alanis Morissette kind of way, which is actually not ironic at all but just kind of frustrating and depressing.
Richard tells us about the magic possibilities of life. He lists a long collection of myths and old wives tales, including classics such as "If your ear itches then someone was talking about you," and "Breaking a mirror gives you seven years of bad luck."
Meanwhile, the South is going race crazy. Richard is becoming more and more frightened of white people.
One evening, he hears a story of a woman whose husband had been killed by a white mob. As she pretended to cry over her husband’s body, she used a gun wrapped in his burial sheet to shoot four of the white people who killed him. Richard imagines that this is what he would do: kill them before they kill me.
Okay, so maybe he’d never actually do that, but it’s soothing to think about—especially because Richard is growing more and more afraid of white people.
One good thing happens about now: Richard’s mom gets a high paying job at a doctor’s office, and he can go to school again.
The thing is, Richard still has a crippling shyness. When he’s called to the blackboard, everyone laughs behind his back because he can’t even write his own name.
Another day, Richard is sitting in class and all of a sudden there are bells and whistles and class is dismissed early. What is going on here? Apparently WWI is over. Whatever, early release! Woo hoo!
On the way home, Richard sees a plane for the first time, but he doesn’t believe that it’s a plane. He thinks it’s a bird until his mom tells him otherwise.
That year Richard has the saddest Christmas ever. All he gets is an orange, when everyone else gets cool toys. All day and all night he eats that orange. Since it is his only present, he makes it last all day. Sad, sad, sad. Someone get that kid a Tickle Me Elmo or a Wii or something.