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Newt Winger, a sensitive teenaged Negro boy, lives in a small Kansas town in the mid-1920's; his mother, Sarah, is a domestic for the local circuit judge, and his father works for Jake Kiner, a kindly white rancher. When Newt is injured in a tornado, he is rescued and initiated into sex by Big Mabel, the local whore. Later, while swimming with friends, including the embittered Marcus Savage, he is forced to dive for the corpse of a frightened Negro gambler whom the bigoted Sheriff Kirky had shot in the back. After Marcus is sent to jail for brutally beating Kiner, Newt turns his attention to Arcella Johnson, a new girl in town, but he is heartbroken when her family moves away because she has become pregnant by Judge Cavanaugh's white playboy son. Soon after, while working for Mr. Kiner, Newt sees Marcus' father, Booker, and a white man, Silas Newhall, attempting to rob the rancher's liquor supply. When they are discovered and attacked by Kiner, Booker kills Kiner and flees, leaving behind the unconscious Silas. As a result, Silas is placed on trial for murder, and Newt hesitates to reveal what he knows, fearing that the white community will rise up against the blacks. Eventually, however, Newt decides to tell the truth, and Booker shoots himself upon hearing the news. By this time, Marcus is out of jail, and sets out to kill Newt, who is attending his mother's funeral. The confrontation leads to a fight, which Newt wins; he lets Marcus escape before Sheriff Kirky arrives, but Kirky follows Marcus into the woods and shoots him in the back. Newt, sickened by the hatred and violence, decides to go elsewhere to live with his aunt.