12 year old Harriet, who is quite intelligent and mature for her age, is determined to find out who killed her brother Robin, who was murdered when Harriet was only a baby. Harriet Cleve Dufresnes is a 12 year old girl who lives with her sister Allison and mother Charlotte in a small town in Mississippi in the 1970s. The girls' brother Robin was murdered ten years ago and the killer was never caught. Robin had been found hanging from a tree right in the family's backyard. Charlotte has never been the same since, and the girls' grandmother Edie and three eccentric aunts Libby, Tatty and Adelaide must do a lot of the work of parenting. The girls' father has left the family to live with his mistress in Nashville.
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Harriet decides one day that she must find out what really happened to Robin and who is responsible. She gets a clue when the housekeeper Ida Rhew tells her that a boy named Danny Ratliff had fought with Robin shortly before his death. The Ratliffs are a notorious family in the area who are known for stealing and dealing drugs. Harriet is convinced that Danny must be responsible, so she recruits her only friend Hely, a boy two years younger than her, and begins investigating.
The book also looks at the lives of the Ratliffs. Danny lives with his brother Farish and grandmother in a pair of old trailers. Farish is a violent and mentally unbalanced man who has been both in prison and a mental institution. They also have a mentally retarded brother named Curtis and another borther named Eugene, who is a preacher and who is trying to become respectable. Farish and Danny become increasingly irrational as their addiction to the drugs they sell, methamphetamine, gets progressively worse. Farish plots to have a large quantity of drugs delivered to Eugene without his religious brother knowing. He does this by hiding the drugs with a shipment of snakes that are transported by a religious snake handler who is visiting the area.
Harriet and Hely spy on the Ratliffs and sneak into Eugene's apartment. Before they escape, they release several snakes and are seen by the brothers. Harriet continues to follow Danny, who becomes so paranoid from the drugs that he barely knows what is real and what he may be imagining. It is revealed, however, that Danny has recollections of visiting and playing with Harriet's brother Robin and being shocked at his murder. So Danny is not the killer after all.
Farish becomes violent and paranoid towards his whole family, especially Danny. In desperation, Danny hides the shipment of drugs in a water tower and plans to escape with them and leave town. Harriet, who has been following him, realizes that he must be hiding something. She climbs the water tower and discovers the drugs. She throws them into the water and destroys them. On the day Danny plans his escape, he rides with Farish to the water tower and shoots his brother. When Danny climbs the water tower, he encounters Harriet. They struggle and Harriet escapes, leaving Danny, who cannot swim, in the water to drown. Danny, however, actually survives but is put in jail for killing his brother. Harriet recovers in the hospital from her ordeal and is diagnosed with epilepsy. As the book concludes, Harriet is unsure of whether Danny actually was responsible for her brother's death. We never learn who the real killer is.
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked the way the book described life in a small southern town in great detail and evoked the atmosphere of this way of life in the 1970s.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was early in the novel when Harriet decides she is going to find out who killed Robin. She has been searching for a worthwhile goal in life and realizes that finding this out can give her life purpose and perhaps help her family heal.
Opinion about the main character:
I admired Harriet's determination to keep on investigating the case even when her life was in danger and she had no idea how to proceed.