The novel is a bildungsroman about a callow youth named David in rural Mississippi during the late 1930s to early 1950s. He learns of religious, racial, social, and sexual bigotry in the narrator's ten strongest memories, one memory per chapter. The memories begin with David on a train, escaping the past, hoping for freedom.
The story begins with Aunt Mae, a former actress and singer, moving in with David's white-working-class family in the middle of a small southern town. Aunt Mae becomes sexually involved with a seventy-year-old man, ending when he is arrested on morality charges. From subsequent events David learns he does not get along with the other boys his own age. At this point suggestive of the 1930s Depression, David's father, Frank, loses his factory job. The family moves to an older house on a hill overlooking the town.
The family's circumstances worsen and Frank becomes frustrated. One week he spends his entire paycheck on seeds and other farming supplies. His wife insists that crops cannot grow in the clay of the hill soil. An argument ensues and he hits her (with his knee) knocking out one of her teeth. She bleeds badly, but it eventually subsides. Subsequently Frank is shipped to Italy to fight in World War II.
While Frank is in Italy, a traveling 'revival' ministry visits town. The traveling preacher teaches that popular dance is a prelude to 'immorality'. The town's local preacher opposes this incursion and begins a rival Bible-study class. These options divide the town. Through editorials in the newspaper and spots on the town radio station, each side attacks the other. Meanwhile, Aunt Mae takes a job in the local propeller factory as a supervisor. At a company dance which she organizes, Aunt Mae successfully entertains by singing. This leads to her being invited to join the hired band, singing for pay.
David's mother goes insane after learning that Frank had been killed in Italy. She becomes uncommunicative, spending most of her time among the wild pines that have grown over Frank's failed crops, otherwise fixating her attention on a photograph of a graveyard that she received via telegram notifying her of Frank's death. David and Aunt Mae take care of her, as Aunt Mae pursues singing. At age fifteen David gets a job at the pharmacy in town. There he encounters Jo Lynne, a girl visiting the valley while her grandfather is ill. After seeing a melodramatic movie, David and Jo Lynne kiss.
Clyde, a member of Aunt Mae's band, is in love with her, and is certain they would get a record deal in Nashville. She leaves for Nashville promising that she'll immediately send for David and his mother. On strength of this promise, David quits his job. After seeing Aunt Mae off, he reflects on his situation. He does not know his mother's whereabouts, but assumes she is in the house since she is afraid to go out at night. He fixes himself dinner rather than searching the house for his mother. After eating, as he climbs the stairs he steps in blood. He finds his mother collapsed, bleeding profusely from her mouth. He picks her up and puts her into bed. The bleeding quells with the help of an old blanket, but it is too late. After some time she dies, exhaling one last word— "Frank."
Immediately the imperious local preacher arrives announcing he is taking David's (now dead) mother to an asylum. David tells the preacher to leave, but the man is undaunted, and begins to charge up the stairs to get David's mother. David grabs his father's rifle and shoots the preacher through the back of the head, killing him. David then buries his mother in the yard and walks into town, using money given to him by the pharmacy owner, Mr. Williams, to board a train, hoping to start anew wherever he might be destined for.
The book is told entirely from the first person, and the main character is rarely referred to as David. David's name is mentioned very briefly at the beginning, but later more strongly.