We begin with our noble protagonist at four years old warming himself by the fire in his home.
The house is so quiet that you can hear a pin drop. All day, his mom has been telling him to shut up so that his sick grandmother can rest. (Someone yelling at a four-year-old to be quiet probably isn’t too restful. Just sayin’.)
Even though he’s not supposed to touch the fancy white curtains, he pushes them aside to look out at sweet, sweet freedom.
His brother is quietly playing with a toy, but when a bird flies by the window our bored protagonist shouts.
His mom comes out and tells Richard to shut his face. His brother says I told you so, and Richard tells him to shut his face. (Four-year-olds are working with a limited vocabulary.)
So, basically there is nothing fun to do and Richard is super bored. Then he sees the fireplace. We’re pretty sure this isn’t going to end well.
Richard starts playing a game called "Hey let’s put stuff in the fire and watch it burn!" It’s the best game ever. He starts by burning some straws from a broom, but that’s just a gateway drug and soon Richard needs a bigger fix. Bigger like, say, curtains. Those would look pretty on fire, right?
So, Richard sets the curtains on fire. We know what’s going to happen and so does his brother, who at the tender age of three already seems smarter than his brother—as evidenced by the fact that he runs away as soon as he sees the curtains go up.
Not so, Richard. He doesn’t figure out that this is a bad idea until the fire reaches the ceiling. No duh, Sherlock.
While most people would want to get out of a burning house, Richard is more concerned about getting beaten for starting the fire in the first place. Naturally, he hides underneath the house as it goes up in flames.
Richard hears yelling. He wonders if his family will die in the fire.
His mother calls out his name. She even looks straight at him, but she can't see him through the smoke. It’s starting to look like this is going to be a really short book.
Finally, Richard’s dad, who apparently has better smoke-o-vision, spots him. Still, Richard refuses to budge. His dad has to crawl under the house and pull him out.
Luckily, no one has died. Richard’s little brother told his mom about the fire soon enough for everyone to run out, carrying Granny on a mattress.
The good news ends there. Richard’s mom whips him so hard that he nearly dies. Afterwards, he lies in bed hallucinating while the doctor covers him in ice packs to keep the fever down.
When he recovers, Richard tells us about the everyday moments of his life. He tells us about horses running, veggies growing, and dew in early morning.
The series of passages is very sweet and we can see what it must have been like for this four-year-old to be experiencing things for the first time. His words paint pictures like the HD NatGeo channel. Twenty-two paragraphs of it.
One day, Richard’s mom tells him that they’re moving to Memphis on a boat called the Kate Adams. Richard can’t wait. Not for Memphis—for the fancy boat.
When he sees the Kate Adams, Richard is disappointed that it’s not as awesome as he imagined. He cries like a baby because, well, he is one.
His dad takes him below deck, where Richard sees people drinking, dancing, and partying. Richard stops crying.
In Memphis, the family moves into a small apartment. Remember all the pretty nature that Richard described a little while ago? Yeah, Memphis doesn’t have any of that. Richard hates Memphis.
Richard has never paid much attention to his dad, but now he starts to notice things. Things like, his dad’s a fat night porter who drinks beer from buckets and makes everyone be quiet during the day so he can get his beauty rest. Nice guy, right?
One morning, Richard and his brother find a cat meowing. Their dad says, "Kill that damn thing" (1.1.88), which any rational person would not take literally. Since Richard hates his father, plus he hasn’t exactly manifested any natural aptitude for rationality, he decides that’s exactly what he’s going to do.
Long story short, Richard hangs the cat on a tiny noose. He proudly tells his brother what he did, and, as with the fire, his brother tells on him. (Probably a good thing on both accounts, we have to say.)
When his dad threatens to beat him, Richard point out that he was just following orders. And it’s true. His dad knows that Richard will never take him seriously again if he’s punished.
Luckily for future sociopaths, Richard’s mom is a bit craftier than his dad and goes for psychological torture rather than physical brutality. She scares the pee out of him by making him dig the cat a grave in the middle of the night.
Something about burying the cat creeps Richard out (hm, wonder what?) and he starts freaking out. Maybe the cat will haunt him! Maybe it will try to kill him in revenge! Maybe it will pee on the carpet! (Legitimate fear: cat pee never goes away.)
To top it off, when Richard finishes burying the cat, his mom makes him say a prayer hoping that he won’t suddenly die in his sleep.
So. Richard is hungry. Like really hungry. Like he has personified hunger and it is a dude looking at him. He doesn't really understand hunger, or why he is hungry, he just knows that he doesn’t like being hungry.
One day Richard tells his mom that he is hungry. She tries to joke about it because she feels bad that he has nothing to eat, but Richard can't take a joke for the life of him and ends up making his mom cry.
Turns out, Richard’s dad has been M.I.A. for some time now and Richard didn't even notice. He did notice that no one yelled at him to be quiet anymore, but he didn't quite connect that with why he was hungry. Richard still doesn’t really get it, but his mom says that his dad was the one with a job making money and bringing food and he’s gone now. Richard has to wait until she gets a job so that they can eat.
Soon after, Richard’s mom gets a job as a cook. Great! But she has to leave Richard and his brother alone in the apartment. Not great. She comes home depressed every night, telling the kids that they’ve got to take care of themselves now that their father’s gone.
The kids have no idea what these talks are about, but they get the feeling that it’s not good.
One evening, Richard’s mom says that he has to get food. He’s excited. Going to the store all by himself makes him feel like a real grownup.
Turns out, running errands isn’t so great after all. Some boys jump him, beat him up, and steal his money.
He tells his mom, she gives him more money, and they jump him again. When he comes back this time, his mom is fed up. She gives him a stick, shoves him outside, and she says that he can’t come home until he’s gotten the groceries.
Richard thinks this is crazy talk, but his mom actually locks the door behind him and won’t let him back in.
This time when the boys try to jump Richard, he swings his stick like a lunatic until he hits someone. Surprise: it works. The boys leave him alone and he can walk in peace. Also, his mom got her groceries so everyone wins. Well, everyone except for the boys. Although, maybe they learned their lesson, in which case—win for everyone!
During the summer, Richard goes out with the other black kids to look up at people pooping from outhouses. This is what passes for entertainment in a world before YouTube. (Now, we can just watch videos like that onYouTube, instead of having to go out and actually find a working outhouse. If you think you’re getting a link, think again. Go find your own link to that.)
They watch for hours, and sometimes the two- and three-year-olds get so excited that they actually start eating poop. This is the grossest thing in the book, so at least we got that out of the way.
Eventually a white policeman is stationed under the Porta-Potties, so no more looking at people pooping for the kids.
To keep the kids out of trouble (i.e., looking at people pooping) and in her sight, Momma Wright takes them with her to work. Even though it’s fun to go with her and get scraps of leftover food, Richard gets upset that he can’t eat the delicious food that his mom is preparing for other people. He wonders why other people can eat and he can’t.
Wandering around the neighborhood while his mom is working, Richard happens to discover a bar just a block from his house. You know what bars have: lots of drunk people who aren’t being too careful with their money.
Richard goes to the bar to beg for pennies and peeps under the door to watch the drunken grownups. Drunk people are almost as fascinating as poop, especially when men vomit and drunk ladies ("ladies" in a loose sense of the word) pee themselves while walking home. It’s not actually that different from an episode of Jersey Shore.
Anyway, one day he gets caught peeping under the door. A man pulls him in and all the drunkards get it into their heads that it would be super funny to get a six-year-old drunk. (There was no official minimum drinking age in 1914, when Richard would have been six, but we’re pretty sure that drunk kids were still frowned on.)
They laugh as Richard runs around the bar drinking from each of the men’s cups, which is, by the way, a great way to get oral herpes.
The drunkards decide to have some more fun with their new toy, so they give him a nickel to say some bad words that they whisper to him. He does it and he has no idea what he is saying, but he’s super excited by everyone’s shocked reactions. Apparently this last stunt crosses the line, because someone finally speaks up and says they should let him go home.
Richard quickly moves from social drinker to full-on six-year-old alcoholic. His mom begs the owner of the bar to keep him out, she can’t stop drunken men from giving him drinks on the street.
Eventually his mom is so fed up with the situation that she beats him and hires an old lady to make sure he can’t sneak off back to the pub.
For a story about a little kid there is one thing that seems to be missing. Did you notice? Yep—school.
There are a lot of school kids where Richard lives. While they play, Richard thumbs through their books and wonders at the mysterious black marks.
Richard learns to recognize some words, and then later he figures out how to read a little. As he reads more and more, he gets super curious about everything around him, so curious that his mother eventually refuses to answer his constant questions.
One morning, Richard has to pay for coal when his mother’s at work. When he pays, he doesn’t know how much change he needs back. The coal man is shocked that a kid his age can’t count, so he teaches him to count to one hundred.
Richard is so excited that he jumps up and down on the bed counting. When his mom returns home, she’s shocked to realize he knows how to count. Finally, she teaches him how to read properly, and then they spend their Sundays reading the newspapers. This is just the cutest.
Unfortunately, Richard doesn't stay cute for long. He asks questions, questions that adults don’t want to (or can’t) answer—like about race.
One day, everyone’s upset because a white man beat a black boy. Richard figures the man must be the boy’s father, so what’s the big deal? His mom tells him. First, the man’s not his father. Second, it was more like "beat him to a pulp" than "gently whip for punishment."
When Richard asks why the white man did this, his mom says that he’s too young to know.
Finally, someone gets the boy to school. At first, Richard is so scared that he can’t even remember his name.
He gets over it. He’s still shy in class, but outside of class he starts hanging out with a group of older boys with dirty mouths. He can't remember anything from class, but he sure can remember all the bad words he learned form his new friends. How’s that for a selective memory?
Richard is so excited to share all the things that he’s learned at school that he runs and writes a bad word on a shop window in soap as soon as he finishes his dinner. A lady sees his beautiful artwork and tells his mom, who forces him to wash it off in front of everyone. Richard basically dies from the embarrassment.
Since his dad has been gone, Richard’s life has been getting more religious. Every weekend his mom takes him to Sunday school.
One day Richard’s mom invites a preacher over for dinner and Richard is excited because she is serving chicken. Richard has to finish his soup before he can have any chicken, but it’s slow going.
By the time Richard even starts eating the soup, the preacher is chowing down on chicken. Soon the other adults finish their soup and eat the chicken too.
Richard just sits and stares at him, like he can’t imagine that this is really happening. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it starts to make a lot less when Richard freaks out. He jumps up and starts running around screaming that the preacher is going to eat all of the chicken. (Here’s a wild guess: maybe it’s a little thing called the Oedipus Complex, where chicken = Richard’s mom. Just a thought.)
When it’s all over, Richard doesn’t even get any chicken because his mom doesn’t let him have dinner after his stunt. Way to go, Dick.
Another morning, Richard wakes up to hear that his mom is taking him and his brother to an alimony hearing. His dad is there, looking quite pleased with himself while his mom bawls her eyes out.
His dad just laughs, and, if you weren’t sure before, this is where we figure out that he is definitely a poophead. So is the judge, because he sides with Richard’s dad.
After the hearing, Richard’s mom gets sick. Richard gets hungrier than ever. Eventually, his mom sends Richard and his brother to an orphanage.
The orphanage is small, the meals are meager, there are tons of angry children, and the whole thing is presided over by Miss Simon, a creepy lady who apparently wants Richard for her own purposes, whatever those might be.
Here’s a weird thing: since the school is too poor for a lawnmower, it uses the abundant resource of free child labor. The children pluck out the grass of the lawn by hand each morning after breakfast.
At first, Richard’s mom visits every day. When the visits suddenly stop, Richard learns that Miss Simon told her that the visits were "spoiling" them. Richard, rightfully, wants to get out of her clutches, but his mom says that he has to wait until she gets enough money to move them back to Arkansas.
Miss Simon still tries to win Richard over, but it doesn’t work at all. Instead, he becomes distrustful of everyone.
One day Miss Simon tells Richard that he’ll be working with her in the office. She wants him to blot her papers, which for some reason terrifies him so much that he ends up running out of her office in tears.
That’s it for Richard. He is so out of there, and, unlike most kids who say they’re going to run away, he actually does. The problem is that he has no idea where he has run away to.
Cut to poor lost Richard. He cries in the middle of the street until a white policeman finds him. He worries the policeman might hurt him, but instead he just takes Richard to the station and gives him a meal. Richard falls asleep.
Later, another policeman asks him questions very politely. Richard forgets that the policeman is white, so he isn’t scared anymore and he answers all the questions.
The policeman takes him back to the orphanage where Miss Simon is waiting for him. As soon as the police leave, she beats him.
When Richard’s mom finds out that he ran away, she gives him two options: A) stay at the orphanage, or B) ask your dad for money. Richard figures his dad can’t be worse than Miss Simon, so he chooses B.
So, later Richard’s mom takes him to see his dad. Dad has a swanky new pad and a girlfriend, and laughs when Richard’s mom says that he needs to support his children.
Richard’s dad offers him a nickel, or about 67 cents, to "help." Gee thanks Dad. That will totally help pay rent.
When Richard leaves, he feels dirty, and we do too.
Flash forward 25 years. Richard is all grown up. He is a stranger to his father because his life has been totally different from his dad’s. His dad is old and toothless and Richard realizes that his dad’s life was pretty much the opposite of awesome. Richard forgives him, although still we can’t muster up much sympathy for the guy.
And now, Richard is going to the city that his father ran away from.