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Cassie is the protagonist of the story. She is a nine year old child when the story begins and is just beginning to recognize injustices in the situations of the people around her. Cassie is characterized from the start as a very intelligent little girl with a fierce sense of loyalty and protective instincts toward her siblings. She is a typical child whose life prior to the story has consisted of school, squabbles with other tenant farmer children over trivialities like where to sit in the classroom. Her worst problem has been how to avoid getting buried in dust or spattered with mud by the white school bus that passes them on their way to school every day.
The novel begins a new phase of Cassieís life. She is not only growing up, which children did much younger in days when they had to help the family survive, but is also becoming aware of differences between herself and other children, differences which are based on skin color alone, but which she has difficult time accepting. Her first "protest" happens in school when she backs up Little Man who has objected to the used books. Expecting to be punished by her mother when Miss Crocker reports to her, Cassie tries to get to her mother first. However, Mary Logan-who does not accuse Miss Crocker of wrong doing understands Cassie.
Perhaps her motherís subtle defense gives Cassie the nerve to speak up in the store in Strawberry, but given her personality, she probably would have anyway. There, she learns for the first time that people with white skin think themselves better than those with black skin; she has to endure her first true humiliation in showing deference to a white child no older than she is. This incident awakens her to two aspects of her life that she cannot change; one is that she can expect to be forced to take second place to a white person of any age. The second is the adults in her family cannot prevent her from being humiliated aside from just keeping her at home.
Cassie also learns that she can get limited revenge with impunity providing she finds ways that would put the whites in a humiliating spot if they admitted the incident or if she can do it in a way that prevents them from knowing who is responsible. Stacey takes advantage of the rain and the dirt road to temporarily stop the bus from tormenting them. Later, Cassie also finds a way to get even with Lillian Jean in a way that will prevent Lillian Jean from telling on her. She learns that part of self preservation is knowing when to keep quiet about what she knows and how to make it inconvenient for her enemies to get the best of her.
Cassie also learns something about friendship versus merely using someone. She doesnít really like T.J. much, but she tolerates him and helps him when he comes to them in need. However, she is able to see that T.J. defines friendship in terms of what someone will give him rather than liking him for who he is. In other words, he friendship can be bought, and those who buy it only use it for their own means. However, the result is loneliness and a not so secret longing to be with the people who really care about him.
By the end of the story, Cassie understands the element that truly differentiates them from the other Black families. Her family owns land, thanks to the insight of her grandfather. So long as they manage to hang onto it in spite of all obstacles, they have roots and a source of self-confidence that the tenant farmers will never have. Their land gives them not only a permanent home, but also a firm sense of accomplishment and identity along with an ability to influence changes at some point in the future.