Even though the novel begins with Richard burning down his house, everything is pretty okay, aside from the occasional beating, until his dad leaves and his mom gets sick. Then Richard’s life gets a little crazy. He becomes an alcoholic, learns to curse, goes to work when most kids are still playing with Legos, and even does a brief stint in an orphanage. At the same time, he’s struggling to understand racism, fit into a religious Southern black society, and get his hands on anything and everything he can read. That’s a lot of multitasking for a little kid.
When Richard publishes his first story to universal disdain and suspicion, he decides he’s had enough. Time to head North.
There’s just one problem: he’s broke. Since honest hard work isn’t really paying the bills, Richard lies, cheats, and steals to build his little ticket-buying stash. He doesn’t get quite enough to make it to Chicago, but he does end up a little closer, in Memphis. But Memphis isn’t much better. For example, his boss wants him to kill another kid for no reason. Plus, this writing business is hard. Richard is more full of doubts than an acrophobic at the top of the high diving board.
But he’s no coward. With little money and no job, he heads for Chicago.
In the North, Richard’s life is gravy. He’s found a job, people don’t want to kill him just because he’s brown (nope, they want to kill him for a whole new set of reasons), and he can read and write all he wants.
And then the Great Depression comes and takes all of that away. Richard finds himself mixed up in a Communist group, which messes with his life just like white racists in the South. Eventually, Richard breaks ties with the Communist Party to focus on what he’s realized is really important: writing.