Life is dismal, but never dull, in the Alabama swamps, when you're pretty sure your mean, hard-drinking Paw killed your Ma years back--and you know full well that he now beats up Aunt May, kills every animal he can track or trap, need it or not, makes moonshine people say has killed two men, and sells polluted fish to a local outlet. (""It's mostly black cafes"" that buy them, is Paw's offhand excuse.) Sixteen-year-old Jesse, a finer type who loves animals, longs to escape this life, and gets his chance when he and his older brothers are hired on at the sawmill near town. Jesse works hard, boards with a nice old lady, and gets to know the sawmill-owner's daughter, who also longs for bigger and better things (she has glimpsed them at her grandparents' home in Virginia). But Jesse's bad-acting brothers won't let him be--they drag him off to a KKK meeting, and to a rough bar where Jesse sees his oldest brother killed by a vengeful husband. Jesse, too, fixing on his mother's death, has revenge in mind; and when Paw continues to make trouble Jesse finds himself up a tree with a pistol, waiting to kill him. Wallin puts a good deal of tension into Jesse's contradictory passions for freedom and revenge, a lot of snap in all his characters, and plenty of action, empathy, and swampland color in his Greek-style family drama.