When Ella finally retrieves her children from the orphanage, Richard is so excited to leave that he only says goodbye to the other children because his mother demands it. In a brief digression from the story, Richard, as author, argues against the popular contention that black people lead particularly passionate, emotional lives. Rather, he believes that what others interpret as emotional depth in black people is really just frenzy and confusion occasioned by living as outsiders in America.
On the way to Elaine, Arkansas, where Ella’s sister Maggie lives, Ella and her sons spend some time with Granny in Jackson, Mississippi. Granny is renting a room to a young schoolteacher, also named Ella. One day, Richard discovers the schoolteacher reading a book and implores her to tell him what the book is about. Hesitantly, Ella begins to describe the novel, Bluebeard and His Seven Wives. Richard is utterly enthralled by the fantasy world of the story, but Granny interrupts the reading before Ella can finish.
A strict Seventh-Day Adventist, Granny equates fiction with lies and sin, so she forbids such “Devil stuff” in her house. When Richard protests against his grandmother’s restrictions, she slaps him and declares that he will burn in hell. Richard, however, is so enraptured by Ella’s story that he becomes determined to read as many novels as he can, risk or no risk. He secretly borrows Ella’s novels from her room and tries to read them, but cannot quite make sense of them because his vocabulary is too limited.
When Richard’s mother falls ill, Granny assumes the task of bathing him and his brother. One particular night, while Granny is scrubbing his backside, Richard absentmindedly and uncomprehendingly tells her that when she is done she can kiss him “back there.” Convinced that Richard is a mouthpiece for the Devil, Granny becomes enraged and begins beating him with a wet towel. Richard flees. Upon learning of Richard’s statement, his mother joins in the pursuit to punish him. Richard then crawls under a bed, where not even his grandfather can reach him. The boy remains there until hunger and thirst drive him out, at which point his mother beats him with a switch. To his mother’s frustration, Richard is honestly unable to tell her where he learned the phrase he said. He is not even sure what the phrase means or why it constitutes such a grave insult. Granny, convinced that Richard has learned the phrase from Ella and her books, confronts the young schoolteacher, who decides to pack her things and move out.
Journeying to Aunt Maggie’s in Arkansas, Richard notices separate sections on the train for white and black travelers. Out of naïve curiosity, Richard wants to go look at the white section, but his mother refuses and grows annoyed. He questions his mother about Granny’s ancestry and race, which only annoys Ella further. Richard himself is annoyed that nobody will talk to him about race relations and resolves to learn whatever he can about this tricky issue.
Arriving in Arkansas, Richard discovers that Aunt Maggie and her husband, Hoskins, always have enough food, as Hoskins earns a good living from his profitable saloon. Nevertheless, Richard is so used to hunger that he hoards food all over the house, constantly fearing that the food will somehow run out. On a trip to a nearby town, Hoskins pulls a prank on Richard by jokingly driving the buggy into the Mississippi River. Though Hoskins knows the river is very shallow and safe, Richard is wildly fearful that they will be swept away and drowned. Unfortunately, Hoskins’s joke makes Richard unable to trust his uncle. One night soon thereafter, local whites murder Hoskins because they covet his profitable business. Unable to claim Hoskins’s body or his assets—and in danger of being murdered themselves—Ella, her two boys, and Maggie flee back to Granny’s house.