Paul-Edward Logan is born on a plantation in Georgia to a white man and his black mistress, a former slave. He has three white brothers—two who are older and one who his own age—and one black sister. His father is a fair-minded man, and when Paul is little, he sees little difference between his life and the lives of his brothers, especially the youngest brother, Robert, who is his best friend. Throughout his childhood, Paul, who is only one-quarter black and can pass as white, is tormented by the black children who live on the plantation, especially a boy named Mitchell. Eventually, Paul strikes a deal with Mitchell: Paul will teach Mitchell how to read and write, and Mitchell will teach Paul how to fight. Their alliance is sealed when Paul takes the blame for Mitchell, who rides and injures one of Paul's father's best horses. Shortly thereafter, Paul's father sends Paul to learn furniture making in Macon, and he sends Robert to a boy's school in Savannah. The two brothers, now immersed in separate worlds, begin to grow apart. This distance creates a developing rift, especially when Paul fights Robert and two of his white friends because they have beaten and hurt one of the family's horses. As a result, Paul's father whips Paul severely, not for fighting the boys, but for standing up to and striking white men.

Several years later, Paul and Mitchell accompany Paul's father to a horse fair in east Texas. Paul is an excellent rider, and a man, whose jockey is ill, asks Paul to ride in a horse race. When Paul's father does not permit him to race, Paul disobeys his father, partially because he feels his father has a double standard about kinship. Paul wins the race but must flee on a train with Mitchell, both to escape his father's wrath and because Mitchell took money from the horse owner that should have gone to Paul. The two young men work as horsemen on a farm in Mississippi and then work in a lumbering camp. In the lumbering camp, the boss, Jessup, resents Paul, who looks like a white man. Eventually, the pair leaves the lumbering camp in search of a better life, and the two part ways. Paul ends up in Vicksburg, where he makes furniture for a friendly white storeowner. Paul carefully saves his money, determined to buy a tract of land south of Vicksburg. He meets an attractive and saucy young girl, Caroline, while making a rocker for her mother. He thinks about asking to court her, but before he can muster the nerve, he discovers that Caroline is betrothed to his dear friend Mitchell, who works at a lumbering camp nearby.

Impatient to begin his life as a landowner, Paul makes a deal with a miserly white man, Filmore Granger, to clear forty acres of timberland for the man in exchange for ownership of the forty acres. Though this is not the land Paul wants to own, he hopes he can sell it later to buy the land he really desires. Mitchell agrees to work with Paul in exchange for a share of the land. Mitchell and Caroline get married, and the three begin a happy but demanding life that consists of clearing trees from the land. They are occasionally harassed, particularly by a poor white man named Digger Wallace, a worthless drunk. Finally, the land Paul dreams of owning goes on sale, and Paul stakes everything he has to buy 200 acres. Just after he makes the deal, however, Digger Wallace shoots and kills Mitchell. Paul and Caroline work desperately, selling off their belongings one by one to make payments on the 200 acres. When Granger rescinds his deal and seizes ownership of the forty acres, Paul and Caroline are ready to surrender. Just before they must leave the forty acres and foreclose on the 200, Robert appears with a letter from Paul's sister, Cassie. Inside the letter is Paul's inheritance from his mother and money that Cassie had saved—more than enough to pay for the land. Paul and Caroline get married and move onto the 200 acres together.