In a squalid shack in Georgia's back country, some thirty miles from Augusta, lives the remnant of the Lester family, last of many generations of "crackers" who once prospered in the raising of tobacco and cotton. But the soil is exhausted now, and utter poverty, helplessness and degeneracy are pressing the starved, ignorant survivors of once proud pioneers toward inevitable extinction.
In the decaying Lester hovel, hard by an old tobacco road, live Jester Lester, an aging, incredibly dirty and lazy reprobate whose obsession is to remain on the land that his forefathers and himself have tilled; Ada, his pellagra-ridden wife, gaunt and feeble, whose only concerns are food, snuff and the welfare of her now-married daughter Pearl, about fourteen years old; daughter Ellie May, a coltish girl of eighteen, cursed with a disfiguring split lip; and son Dude, a scrawny, stupid, impudent boy of sixteen. There were some fifteen other children, but they are either dead or gone from the home--the Lesters are hazy now even as to their names. Jeeter's mother, a silent and ignored old crone, completes the household.
Jeeter's grandfather had lost the farm, but a benevolent landlord, Captain John, after granting too much food and seed credit, failed to make the farm pay and left the community, giving Jeeter permission to live on there, free of rent. Shiftless and without credit, Jeeter has had no crop in seven years, with the exception of some trifling garden produce. He is always intending to plant a crop or cut and sell a load of wood, "one o' these days," but passes the time, chiefly, in dozing on the porch--between the raids on his neighbors' gardens and cellars--and piously waiting for God to provide.
Jeeter now is unsuccessfully trying to patch the ragged inner tube for his wreck of a car, his last possession, but one so worthless that even the sheriff has scorned it. Dude is amusing himself by bouncing a ball off the battered wall, amiably calling his father a dirty old liar and driving the terrorized Grandma under the porch by threats to hit her in the head with the ball. Ada appears, and Dude entertains himself further by predicting that she will be buried in the ragged dress she wears, not the "stylish" one for which she is constantly longing, and that Jeeter's body will be left in the empty corncrib for the rats.
They are interrupted by the arrival of Lov Bensey, Pearl's husband, a huge, shambling "cracker" who earns a dollar a day at the railroad coal chute. Lov, carrying a sack of turnips which he guards carefully, has come to Jeeter with a protest. It seems that Pearl refuses even to talk to him, runs into the bushes when he appears, won't do any cooking and, worse, "She don't sleep in the bed with me, that's what." He has given Jeeter seven dollars in consideration of the wedding, and is both bewildered and outraged.
Jeeter is vainly trying to bargain with Lov for some of the turnips in exchange for a paternal order to Pearl to mend her ways, when Dude calls attention to the fact that Ellie May, long smitten with Lov, is "horsing"--wriggling on the ground and squealing in primitive passion. The neglected Lov sits beside her, but as he begins to fondle her, Jeeter makes a lunge for the turnips and scuttles off into the brush. Ellie May, aided by Grandma and Ada, who are armed with sticks, succeeds in delaying Lov's pursuit of Jeeter, and he finally goes gloomily home.
Another visitor to the barren yard is Sister Bessie Rice, a portly woman preacher of about forty, loud and hearty. Jeeter appears at a run, pursued by Dude who seizes him at the gate and extracts more turnips from Jeeter's pockets, then throws his father to the ground. Sister Bessie joins the family in eating the turnips, obliges with individual prayers for all, reserving the last for Dude whom she forces down beside her in the praying circle, holding his legs in her arms. Dude finds this not unpleasant, and Sister Bessie fondly intimates that she is considering him as her next husband. Peabody, a neighbor (Jeeter boasts that he is the sire of roughly half of Peabody's children), interrupts them with the news that old Captain John is dead and his son, Captain Tim, is returning. Jeeter, hope renewed, excitedly prepares to burn off his fields, expecting credit and benevolence once again.
The next morning at dawn, Sister Bessie returns. The Lord has told her to marry Dude, and she finally corners the bashful youth. He agrees to the wedding when she promises to buy a new automobile (with a loud horn) with eight hundred dollars' insurance left by her late husband, and also to set him up as a preacher. They go for the license. Then Lov reappears with the news that Pearl has run away. When Love has gone, Jeeter leaves for the fields, but he returns, dragging Pearl who has been hiding in the brush. She rushes into her mother's arms. Jeeter thoughtfully fingers her dress to note the new maturity of her figure. He orders that she go back to Lov, but Ada informs Jeeter that he isn't her father; Pearl was the issue of a passer-by when Jeeter was absent borrowing a mule.
While Jeeter and Ada have gone to steal some corn meal, Lov makes a pitiful plea to Pearl to return, but Ada returns and routs him with a stick. Jeeter urges that Lov take Ellie May, but he goes somberly off and the scorned Ellie May falls upon her pretty sister in a jealous rage. The sound of an automobile horn breaks in, and Dude and Bessie return triumphantly in a new car; it lacks a fender, however, since Dude had driven into a wagon, probably killing its Negro occupant. Bessie proceeds to marry herself to Dude, then promptly pulls him into the house. All the Lesters are peering through the windows with interest when Captain Tim and Payne, a banker, arrive.
They bring the shocking news that the bank now owns the property--Jeeter must either leave or pay a rent of a hundred dollars a year. He is offered work in the mills at Augusta, but will not leave his land. Jeeter is suddenly inspired with the thought that Tom, his most prosperous son who lives not far away, undoubtedly will provide the hundred dollars. He hurriedly sends Dude and Bessie off in the car to Tom to get the money.
The next morning, Jeeter, who has slept on the porch in a vain wait for Dude and Bessie, learns that Grandma has disappeared. He reflects complacently that she probably has been burned to death in the fields. Says he, "I'll go out and look around one of these days." Lov appears with a gift of precious salt pork; he has "just got to have Pearl back." He finally offers Jeeter two dollars a week if Pearl will return to him, but again Ada sends him away. Ada begs Jeeter to use the money from Tom to take the family to Augusta where the women will support him by working in the mills, but Jeeter refuses.
Dude and Bessie return (minus a headlight from another collision) to tell Jeeter that son Tom suggested that his father go to hell; he also casually observed that Sister Bessie "used to be a two-bit slut when he knowed her." Jeeter desperately tries to borrow Bessie's car so that he may sell a load of wood, but they find that a wheel is bent and that they have been driving without oil--besides, Bessie won't let him have the car anyway. Jeeter calls Bessie an old bitch, and she is replying that he and all the Lesters are of parallel ancestry, when Jeeter, suddenly seeing Pearl, recalls Lov's offer. Here is his salvation.
Jeeter grabs the girl, intending to return her to Lov, and fights off Ada while he sends Dude and Bessie for Bensey. Ada helplessly runs after them, and, as the car is started with a proud blast of the horn, she gives a shriek of agony. Ada drags herself back on hands and knees--the wheels of the car have passed over her. Jeeter, still holding Pearl's arm, relents enough to let her embrace Ada, but he won't grant his dying wife's appeal to free Pearl. Suddenly Ada bites Jeeter's hand, and Pearl flashes down the road with a cry, "Good-bye, Ma." Ada laughs bitterly once, and dies.
Lov has appeared, and Jeeter tells him and Dude to dig a deep hole in the fields and to bury Ada there. "Ada would like that," he says. He asks a prayer from Sister Bessie, then sends Ellie May off to Lov's home. "Be nice to him, and maybe he'll let you stay. He'll be wanting a woman pretty bad right now," he tells her.
He looks down at Ada's body and says: "You shouldn't have done that, Ada. One way and another it didn't do anybody much good, except maybe Pearl." He sits on the porch, leaning against an upright, hat tilted over his eyes as when he dozes, and abstractedly pinches a bit of soil to dust between his fingers. Then movement ceases, and a rotten shingle falls from the sagging porch.