In the summer of 1948, in rural south Alabama, whites pick on one side of the cotton field and blacks on the other. Where the fields come together, twelve-year-old Ted Dillon meets Poudlum Robinson, a black boy his own age, who teaches him how to endure the hard work while they bond and go on to integrate the field. Through Poudlum and Jake, an escaped black convict, Ted learns of evil forces gathering against Poudlum’s family. The white boy and the black boy encounter danger and suspense while executing a plan to save Poudlum’s family, set Jake onto a river of freedom, and discover a great, yet simple secret of enlightenment.
In the fall of 1948, Ted and Poudlum have their post-Thanksgiving fishing trip to the Cypress Hole on the Satilfa Creek interrupted by fugitive bank robbers who leave the boys tied up and stranded beneath the Iron Bridge.They manage to escape their bonds, and also the evil sheriff, by concealing themselves in a secret hidey-hole beneath the bridge. After a brief respite where they help their families make cane syrup and kill pigs for the winter, they return to search--along with seemingly half the locals--for money rumored to have been hidden by the criminals. However, Ted and Poudlum have a clue no one else possesses--which indirectly leads to their triumph after being trapped in a sleet storm and incarcerated by the sheriff. Through their exposure to some memorable individuals, the boys grow in character and knowledge as the story progresses, and in the end they are serenaded by angelic voices.
In the spring of 1949, Ted and Poudlum embark on an extended camping and fishing trip on the Tombigbee River, only to stumble upon a secret meeting of the Klan, and discovering the secret identity of the leaders. After which they are chased up and down the river by the hooded phantoms. They escape in a horrendous storm and flood, only to be washed up on the river bank at the camp of river pirates and bootleggers, who capture them and plan to sell them down the river as slaves on merchant ships sailing for China. After witnessing a murder, they once again escape and use the great river and its forest to evade the evil forces bearing down on them.
In the summer of 1949, Ted and Poudlom journey into a deep and ancient forest where they happen upon the shanty of Miss Lucretia, the last Voodoo Queen, who has been banished to the forest and lived there alone for the past 15 years. The boys fear, but later befriend Miss Lucretia. She reveals that she was the granddaughter of the last slave born in Africa and brought to the United States illegally. Ted and Poudlum decide to bring Miss Lucretia out of the forest, until the arrival of Miss Lucretia's nephew, Cudjo Lewis III, who has his own selfish reasons for keeping his aunt hidden. Through a series of adventures, Ted and Poudlum resolve to follow their own unique moral compasses and do what's right despite the pressures of the time in which they live.