Despite the serious topic, I found this a lyrical story, full of hope. After the abolition of slavery two brothers turn up at George's small farm and start working for him. His son Caleb was allegedly killed in the Civil War. When August, Caleb’s lover, kills one of the brothers out of panic and hate against the freed slaves, things heat up very quickly. The strength of the novel is in the grey tones: neither side is entirely good or bad.
He recalled a time they'd run into the woods to play, only to return with Caleb so mortified, August so filled with glee, that George took the contrast as the result of some competition, an occasion that might lend itself to a moral lesson. Take your losses like a man, now, George had said. But later, when Caleb would not sit for dinner, winced even in consideration of doing so, George pulled the boy's trousers down. Slash marks, some still flush with blood, the others bruised to a deep purple, covered his backside. He told George of the game August had hatched, Master and the Slave, and that they had only been assuming their proper roles for the afternoon. The pain was not from the marks, Caleb went on, but from the fact that he could not conceal them and that George might tell August's father. He had to swear to the boy that he would keep it secret.