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In September of 1952, seven-year-old Luke Chandler lives on a farm with his mother, his father, and his grandparents. Although Luke's grandfather and father have been farmers for years, Luke's mother came from more "upscale" living, and she has determined that Luke won't follow in his elders' footsteps. Luke is just fine with this, preferring to dream of being a Major League Baseball player instead. Nevertheless, he is very much involved with the activities of harvesting the farm's cotton crop - a meager crop which causes the family to go deeper into debt each year. Luke also has an uncle who is fighting in the Korean War, and the family constantly worries about him.
At the beginning of the book, Luke accompanies his grandfather to pick up two groups of migrant workers who will help with the harvest that summer. The first group is a family of "hill people", inlcuding a lovely teenage girl, her mentally retarded brother, and another brother having tremendous strength coupled with a mean, violent streak. The second group is a bunch of Mexican workers, including a rather dangerous-looking individual called Cowboy.
Luke is smitten with the hill people's teenage daughter, especially after she lets him watch her bathe in the creek, but he is wary of her mean brother Hank, who seems to have a huge chip on his shoulder. Luke's fears about the danger Hank presents are confirmed when Hank, seeing one of his brothers accosted by kids in town, unnecessarily beats one of the assailants to death with a two-by-four. Nobody in town is willing to risk Hank's wrath by squealing on him, including Luke, who, when questioned by the Sheriff, decides to hide the truth for fear of reprisal. Later on, Hank offends everybody further by breaking one of Cowboy's ribs during a baseball game.
Because of the trouble Hank causes, Hank's retarded brother uses his earnings to buy paint for the Chandler house - a painted house being a sign of refinement that the old house has never seen (but which Luke's mom has, being from a more upscale family originally).
In the meantime, gossip is spreading about a baby born to an unwed teenage girl in a poor family. This is an absolute scandal, especially since the young woman refuses to name the father. In the middle of the night, Luke's mother and grandmother are called upon to help deliver the baby, a healthy but colicky boy. It turns out the baby is the son of Luke's uncle, who impregnated the young girl before leaving for Korea, but both families resolve to keep this fact a secret so that the scandal doesn't grow to include the Chandlers.
Later, the carnival comes to town, and Hank demonstrates his strength and meanness once again by besting a circus strongman for a hefty sum of money. Flush with his winnings, Hank decides he doesn't want to pick cotton anymore. His family agree that he should return home to the hills, especially since the Sheriff still suspects Hank of being a murderer. Luke follows Hank secretly as he leaves town, happier than anyone to see Hank go, but suddenly Cowboy appears in Hank's path seeking revenge for his broken rib. Hank and Cowboy fight, but Cowboy has a knife, and he plunges it repeatedly into Hank's chest and stomach, killing him. He tosses Hank's body in the river to hide it. Luke tries to make it home without Cowboy noticing, but Cowboy catches Luke and threatens the lives of Luke's family if Luke should ever tell what happened. Luke agrees to keep quiet, but as it happens he doesn't have long to worry about Cowboy's threats since Cowboy and the hill people's teenage daughter soon run away together, breaking both Luke's heart and the hearts of her family.
With all the dangerous people finally out of their lives, the Chandlers nevertheless encounter more bad fortune, as the rains get abnormally heavy and ruin the rest of their cotton crop. Without cotton to pick, both the hill people and the Mexicans decide to move on, and it looks like the family will go still deeper into debt. However, Luke's mother reveals that Luke and his parents are going to move up north and find work in the city. On one hand, Luke is reluctant to leave the life he's always known, but on the other hand, he knows it's time to move on. The Chandler house has been almost completely painted - Luke and his family took over the job of painting the house after the hill people left - when Luke and his parents bid Luke's grandparents goodbye and set off toward a new life up north.