Paul starts his narrative with a reference to events far in the future. He tells us that he and Mitchell, whom Paul considers dearer even than his own father and brothers, left their home in Georgia together, spent time in east Texas, and finally found their way to Mississippi. Without any further explanation, Paul begins to narrate his childhood experiences with Mitchell.
Paul, the nine-year-old son of a white father and a half-Native-American, half- African-American mother, lives a comfortable life on his father's plantation during the period following the Civil War. He has three half-brothers, born of his father and his white wife: the eighteen-year-old Hammond, the sixteen- year-old George, and the nine-year-old Robert, with whom Paul is especially close. He also has one full sister, Cassie, who is fifteen years old. Paul's father, whom Paul addresses as Mister Edward, treats Paul in more or less the same manner as his brothers—they all eat at the same table, his father takes Paul with him on business and social visits, and he teaches Paul, who cannot go to school with his brothers, to read and write. Paul looks white, and many people at first mistake him for a white person. Paul is only vaguely aware of the lives of black children and the less fortunate black sons of white plantation owners, despite his mother's repeated reminders of his racial identity.
Mitchell, the son of a sharecropper on the Logan plantation, is slightly older and slightly bigger than Paul. He hates the sight of his privileged counterpart and as a result severely beats Paul whenever he can. Paul turns first to Cassie for advice, but he only rejects Cassie's offer to talk to Mitchell. Next, he turns to his father, who refuses Paul's request for intervention and tells him to instead find a solution to the problem himself. Finally, Paul turns to his brothers. His older brothers refuse to fight Mitchell for Paul, but they agree to talk to him. The four brothers ride over to the Thomas's land. When Mrs. Thomas sees the three white boys, who address her by her first name and ask for her son, she becomes nervous. But, she sends them over to the woods, where Mitchell is chopping wood. At first, Hammond and George try to reason with Mitchell, but soon they begin to struggle angrily over the axe. Finally, the two older boys, angered, force Mitchell to promise never to bother Paul again, heatedly reminding him that he must obey them because they are white.
The next day, Mitchell beats Paul brutally, calling him a "white nigger." Paul, finally realizing that he must solve this problem himself, retreats to a creek bank. Robert finds him there and offers to help, but Paul refuses his help, explaining that he just wants to sit and think. The two boys sit quietly together, throwing rocks into the creek. Finally, Paul reaches a solution and seeks Mitchell out, ready to understand his hatred for him. When Mitchell accuses Paul of thinking he is better than others, Paul reasons with him. The two determine that the only thing that Paul has that Mitchell does not is book learning. Paul gamely offers to teach Mitchell to read and write. At first Mitchell is not interested, but Paul makes the proposition more enticing by reminding Mitchell of the power, carefully guarded by whites, represented by the ability to read and write. Mitchell wonders if the night riders, or Ku Klux Klan, will come for Paul if he teaches Mitchell, but Paul dismisses the possibility. Finally, Mitchell, who cannot accept a gift but can accept a bargain, asks what Paul wants from him. Paul, thinking quickly, asks Mitchell to teach him how to fight. Thus, the two boys form an uneasy alliance, and though they do not become friends, Paul finds that Mitchell becomes a sort of protector for him.
At the beginning of the book, Paul's words and actions indicate that he possesses only passing awareness of the significance of his racial status. He understands that many white fathers of mixed-race children do not acknowledge them as their own. He listens to his mother's assertions that the race of his brothers does indeed matter, and he knows he does not get the formal schooling his white siblings receive. But for the most part, these facts neither mean much to him nor greatly affect his day-to-day existence. Paul explains to us that many people who meet him for the first time take him, with his light skin and his dark brown, straight hair, to be white. Paul can pass as a white person, and thus far, it has afforded him a comfortable life: he is, like his brothers, the son of a plantation owner. He does not have to work as his black counterparts do, and he knows how to read and write.
Paul's encounters with Mitchell foreshadow the trouble that Paul's biracial status will add to his life. Paul finds that his black foil deeply resents the privilege afforded to Paul because of the luck of his birth. Mitchell's attitude toward Paul is complex—he resents the young boy's easier, more privileged life, and Mitchell feels that because Paul is black he should have a life similar to his own. But, at the same time, Mitchell's defiant behavior toward Hammond and George indicates that the true object of his hatred is the white system of power, from which Hammond, George, and Paul benefit. He takes his resentment out on Paul only because he can, since Paul is smaller than he is and according to the current society, he is considered black. Quite possibly, Mitchell senses what Paul does not: that in the end, the world will treat him as a black man and not as a white man. His attention and violence may be an attempt to alert Paul to the fact that society will not long treat a boy with a black mother as white.
Paul, a child clearly accustomed to fair and gentle treatment, quickly recognizes the similarities between himself and Mitchell. After enduring beating upon beating from the hostile older boy, he tries to understand the situation from Mitchell's point of view, remembering that both he and Mitchell were both born as slaves on the plantation. Paul's conversation with Mitchell focuses on their similarities—after getting Mitchell to admit that he would not like Paul any more if he had darker skin, he forces Mitchell to agree that the only real differences between the two are that Paul can read and write and Mitchell can fight. Paul's exchange with Mitchell establishes the parallel between the two boys: in Mitchell, Paul sees a mirror image of himself. This mirroring foreshadows the fact that, as far as society at large is concerned, Paul, even with all his learning and comfortable life, is still black. At his young age, Paul does not fully understand the implications of this mirroring.
Accordingly, Paul observes, but cannot fully make sense of, a societal structure that guards and buttresses the power of whites. For example: Paul's white brothers, only eighteen and sixteen years old, address Mitchell's mother by her first name; Paul does not go to school; Hammond, outraged by Mitchell's insolence reminds Mitchell that he is not Paul, referring to his race; Mitchell wonders briefly about the night riders, men who terrorize the blacks who threaten the rigid code of white power. Paul also explains, matter-of-factly, that it is against the law for a white man to have children with a black woman. Although Paul dismisses this fact, explaining that the law is in place only to prevent black children from inheriting land from white fathers, it is this exclusion from power that will be the source of his greatest travails.