The novel opens on a warm October morning in 1933, and the Logan children are walking to school. The narrator, Cassie, hurries her youngest brother, “Little Man,” who is trying to keep his clothes clean despite the dust and mud. Their oldest brother, Stacey, is irritable about being in their mother’s seventh grade class, and Christopher-John, at seven, follows along whistling cheerfully after a brief attempt to join the disgruntled mood at having to dress up for the first day of school. Cassie’s reminiscences about her family’s land, bought by her grandfather who’d been born a slave, during the Reconstruction era (1865-77). She is interrupted by T.J. Avery and his younger brother Claude who join the children as they walk past the Granger land on which the Averys live as sharecroppers. T.J. is repeating seventh grade and expresses hope Stacey might help him cheat on tests, a thought quickly rejected. T.J. then shares some local news: the Berry family had been burned last night. The children had known their grandmother had gone to a sick house last night. This often happened as people called her instead of a doctor due to her healing abilities, but this was the first they’d heard of a burning. T.J. explains this was no accident, but rather that white men had intentionally “took a match to ’em,” which horrifies the children. Anxious to keep everyone’s attention, T.J. goes on to detail his recent ventures, going to the Wallace store “dancin’ room” without permission, and escaping punishment by blaming the bad behavior on Claude. They are interrupted by the white children’s school bus speeding by and spraying red mud over Little Man who has been trying so hard to keep clean. The group is soon joined by “a towheaded boy, barefooted and pale”; it is Jeremy Simms, whose school has been in session since August. He is whisked away by a group of white children, including his sister Lillian Jean, at the next crossroads, and the black children are left to enter Great Faith Elementary and Secondary School.
Miss Crocker is teaching first-graders, among them Little Man, as well as Cassie’s fourth grade class, and is pleased to distribute books for the first time this year. Cassie’s initial excitement at owning her very own reader quickly turns to disillusionment as she discovers all the books are old, badly worn and marked by many previous generations of students. Her concerns about her younger brother’s reaction to the decrepit books are warranted, as he stands to receive his and requests another in its stead as “that one’s dirty.” Miss Crocker threatens him with the switch for his disrespect but Cassie interrupts her, explaining she knows why he threw it on the floor. Inside the front cover, the race of each previous owner is listed vertically, and in the last row is printed the word “nigra.” Both children are beaten for their rejection of the books.
Cassie is determined to explain the incident to her mother personally, but Miss Crocker arrives at her colleague’s desk first and shows her the offending books, still failing to understand the children’s reactions. Mary Logan immediately recognizes the problem and glues paper over the offending inside covers against Miss Crocker’s protests at defacing county property. Cassie is relieved to have witnessed the exchange and is reassured that her mother understood.
Cassie is out in the cotton field with her grandmother, Big Ma, and her mother and brothers when they spy her father approaching down the road. He is accompanied by a mysterious man, “a human tree in height, towering high above Papa’s six feet two inches.” At first they are worried something must be wrong for the men to return from the railroad so early in the season, but Papa explains he is only staying home for a day and came to bring Mr. Morrison, who “lost his job on the railroad a while back” for fighting some white men. The children are curious about why their father might have brought him to stay with them and Cassie nervously asks Stacey whether he thinks it might have something to do with the burnings. At church the next morning, talking with the Averys and Laniers, it is confirmed: John Henry Berry died the night before. Big Ma says he was just “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” but he still left behind a wife and six children on a plot of land across Smellings Creek. He and his brother had stopped for gas in the nearby town of Strawberry where some white men who had been drinking approached the car. One said “that’s the nigger Sallie Ann said was flirtin’ with her” and they left before getting gas, getting as far as their uncle’s house before the men caught up with them and lit the three men afire. After the neighbors leave, Papa gathers his children and warns them never to go up to the Wallace store. “Children going there are gonna get themselves in a whole lot of trouble one day,” he cautions, and Cassie and her brothers readily agree out of fear of his switch.
With October rains come humiliating calf-skin raincoats, but nothing compares to the insult Little Man experiences each time the school bus full of white children splatters him with mud. This particular morning, although the children have left even earlier than usual to avoid it, the bus veers so close they must jump to avoid being hit and Little Man winds up chest-deep in water. Stacey is angry and formulates a plan: at lunchtime, the children take shovels back to the offending gulley and dig a deep hole, making it look like the road washed away. With the Logan children secretly watching from their hiding place, the predictable driver speeds through the spot, but unexpectedly falls into the trap, unable to get out and forcing the white students to walk home. Due to the broken axle, Mr. Grimes guesses it will be at least two weeks until it is fixed. When Mama and Big Ma comment on the unusual occurrence at dinner, the children contain their “triumphant giggles,” but it is hopeless to focus on homework until their studies are interrupted by a visit from Joe Avery, warning the Night Riders will be out again tonight. Concluding someone must have seen them digging the hole, Cassie is frightened they are the cause of the likely visit. When she awakes in the middle of the night and Big Ma is not beside her, she ventures out and witnesses a group of cars pause in front of the house, then turn around in the driveway and disappear into the night. The only explanation for the sleeping household to be spared more violence is the figure of the larger-than-life Mr. Morrison standing guard, shotgun in hand.
Analysis Chapters 1-3
Each of the Logan children’s experience of racism provokes a slightly different reaction, but all four are united in their indignation at being humiliated. From Little Man’s protest against both dirty clothes and schoolbooks to Stacey’s suggestion and follow through of digging a ditch to destroy the offending school bus, Cassie’s brothers share her sense of moral outrage. Her own view of the unfair situation is presented against the very adult backdrop of the recent burnings of the Berry men, accused of flirting with a white woman, but perhaps no more guilty than her own family for owning their own land.
Presenting the events according to Cassie’s point of view, with details often learned through T.J. and Jeremy Simms, primarily creates a compelling first-person character, it also serves to add a sense of mystery as Cassie herself struggles with complex realities of adult racial dynamics. There is an obvious contrast between a teacher like Miss Crocker who does not question or threaten the status quo, and Mary Logan, who not only comprehends the insult of being given a twelfth-generation book now marked “nigra,” but actually does something about it.
Besides introducing the main characters and setting up their different approaches to confronting the tensions that surround them, these first three chapters illustrate the power even children can exercise against the forces of white oppression. Their world is a microcosm of the greater injustices in Mississippi and beyond. While the Logan children must walk over an hour over muddy paths to school, which is only in session October through early spring, the white children have their own buses and school house. It is clear that this society, long before the modern civil rights movement began in the 1950s, is biased towards whites. Just as the bus adds insult to injury by splattering the defenseless children as they trudge along, the Night Men demonstrate that some white adults will not tolerate any disruption to the white-dominated hierarchy.