Minerva Sassoon is a sensual, magnetic woman trapped in the circumscribed life of a small southern town. Homemaker and gaudy centerpiece of the sly, foolish, sometimes brutal family she has married into, Minerva is aware that her overt sexuality and maddening indifference can provoke them to violence. Her husband, Herman, yearns for her genuine attention, beyond a casual wifely servility, but can only think to get it by abusing her.
Sister-in-law, Jillian, is a silly woman, a religious moralizer who has no scruples about implementing a devious plan to win Markie Amsterdam, a well-to-do young man of the town, away from his ardent pursuit of Minerva.
With the exception of the earnest and college-educated Floyd, and dotty old Mrs. Amsterdam, the townspeople regard Minerva with varying combinations of lust and hostility. Her behavior seems to upset the God-given order of things. She floats through their lives and her own, her lively intelligence nearly hidden. Minerva's only real passion is her yearning and sporadic search for the daughter she gave up at birth, nine years earlier.
Jillian, in her twisted plans to win Markie's love, appears one night with a little girl, Frances, who seems to be Minerva's missing child. Jillian hopes that Minerva will now loosen her hold over Markie. Frances is shy, undernourished and illiterate, and Minerva undertakes to remedy the situation by showering the child with love.
Herman's resentment grows, fueled by lack of attention and his suspicion of Minerva's involvement with other men. He brutally separates Frances from Minerva. The two are reunited while Minerva learns that Frances's real parents, poor sharecroppers, offered to give her up for money.
Minerva and Frances flee to Memphis by train, are caught by the police and returned home. Humiliated, separated, they fight to come back together and, realizing the source of their strength is in each other, set out again.
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