The opening chapters give us some much-needed exposition. We find out that racial tensions are running high in Cassie's town—really high. So high that a few men have been burned because they dared to speak to a white woman. And we're not talking "burned" like, "Oooh, burn." We're talking literally set on fire. The exposition sets us up to expect a lot of racial conflict.
But before we get to the main conflict, we have to get through some really enraging chapters about racial oppression and inequality, like the black kids having to walk to school while the white kids get a bus, or the black kids getting the white kids' cast-off school books. We're about ready for some conflict, too, by the time we get to Mama's boycott of the Wallace store.
Most of the black families have no choice but to shop at the Wallace store, even though they know they are doing rotten things like selling alcohol to minors and, oh yeah, conducting murderous night raids. So, Mama organizes a boycott—which pretty quickly leads to some serious conflict, both between the white and black communities, and in the black community itself.
And then T.J. makes some more bad choices. It's not like we're surprised—this kid is Bad News—but it sure doesn't help that he shoots his mouth off about who's behind the boycott. Papa Logan is shot on his way back from Vicksburg. Oh, and Mr. Morrison has also badly beaten two white men because of it, so now he's in danger of facing the night men's wrath.
The tipping point comes when R.W. and Melvin Simms trick T.J. into robbing Barnett Mercantile with them, since they know he's been eyeing the pearl-handled gun there. Hurting Mr. and Mrs. Barnett was not part of the plan, though, and when the Simms brothers knock the store owners around, T.J. threatens to tell everyone what happened. Yeah, right. The white Simms brothers badly beat T.J., setting the stage for the book's tragic ending.
And now the violence is all out in the open. The Wallaces and Simms show up at T.J.'s house to punish him for robbing the store—by hanging him. But just as they're about to string him up—and maybe a few other people for good measure—a fire breaks out on Granger land. Everyone heads off to fight the fire, and T.J. is taken into custody by local lawyer Mr. Jamison.
But lightning didn't start that fire: Papa did, and he did it to save T.J. At least temporarily. In the end, T.J. is taken to Strawberry to await his fate, and it doesn't look good. He'll be put on a chain gang, or (more than likely) hanged. Plus, the Logan land might be lost. Cassie cries for both T.J. and the land.