A Death in the Family tells the story of a little boy, Rufus, and his family as they cope with the death of Rufus' father Jay in a car accident. When Jay never returns from what was supposed to be a short trip, his wife Mary waits anxiously for news and is joined by several members of her family when she learns of Jay's, including her parents, brother, and aunt as they all try to process his death. Not fully understanding his relatives' anger or musings on religion, Rufus struggles to comprehend what has happened and adjust to his new life.
The novel is based on the events that occurred to Agee in 1915 when his father went out of town to see his own father, who had suffered a heart attack. During the return trip, Agee's father was killed in a car accident. The novel provides a portrait of life in Knoxville, Tennessee, showing how such a loss affects the young widow, her two children, her atheist father and the dead man's alcoholic brother.