This novel is set in two primary locations: Colleton, South Carolina and New York, New York. Both places are, of course, real geographical locations. The stories of Tom’s childhood are set on Melrose Island, a small Island his family owns, in Colleton County. The present day plot in which Tom is visiting Savannah and talking with her psychiatrist, Dr. Lowenstein, is set in New York City.
This plot takes place in the present day (the mid-1980s). The past tense stories of their childhood start with the births of Savannah and Tom, during World War II.
Tom Wingo - The main character and protagonist of the novel. Tom has recently been fired from his position as a coach and a teacher. He spends a summer in New York City with Dr. Lowenstein, his sister’s psychiatrist, trying to help her understand his and his sister’s childhood with the hope of saving Savannah (his sister) from herself. In the meantime, Tom tries to make himself a better person and figure out how his life has gotten so off track.
Dr. Susan Lowenstein - Savannah’s psychiatrist. She is a beautiful Jewish woman, who despite her seemingly fabulous life is very unhappy. Luke Wingo Luke is the oldest of the Wingo siblings. He is brave and true. He is the protector of those he loves. He loves nothing more than Colleton. Savannah Wingo Savannah is Tom’s twin sister. Savannah is obviously the most sensitive of the family. She is deeply hurt by the events of their childhood and manifests her pain through delusions. She is a poet and revels in the anonymity of New York City.
Henry Wingo - Henry is Tom’s father. He is a shrimper and a brutal, thoughtless man. He is a tyrant over his family. He beats his wife and children; he is very cruel. Yet, at times, Henry can also be a dreamer and almost sweet. In his old age, he is pathetic.
Lila Wingo - Lila is Tom’s mother. She is very beautiful and believes that she is above her social position. She is constantly trying to befriend the women of society. She believes that she could have been the first lady if only she had met the right man.
Sallie Wingo - Sallie is Tom’s wife. They met in college and now, she is a doctor. Sallie has recently informed Tom that she is having an affair with another doctor. She feels like Tom does not appreciate her because he does not express his emotions.
Jennifer Wingo - Tom’s oldest daughter, age ten. She is Lila’s favorite grandchild because Isabel Newbury was on the same floor in the hospital as Jennifer and Sallie when Jennifer was born. Because of this good fortune, Lila was able to wile her way into elite society.
Lucy Wingo - Tom’s second daughter, age nine. She wants to be a poet like Savannah. Chandler Wingo Tom’s youngest daughter, age seven.
Amos Wingo - He is Henry’s Bible salesman, barber father. Amos is an incredibly good and religious man. When his wife leaves him during the Depression, he never looks at another woman. Many years later, he takes his wife back with no questions.
Tolitha Wingo - She is Henry’s mother. Tolitha is a good-natured free spirit. She leaves Henry and her husband, Amos, during the Depression. She moves to Atlanta and marries another man, John. John never knows of her husband or son and she lives with him until he dies. When John dies, Tolitha spends all of her money on a three-year cruise around the world, during which she marries a few more times. When she runs out of money she goes back to Amos and they live together until his death.
Papa John - Papa John is Tolitha’s second husband. When the Wingos stay with Tolitha and Papa John while Henry is in Korea, the children are not allowed to tell him that Tolitha is their grandmother. Papa John is wonderful with the children and a good man. He sells shoes and raises spiders as a hobby. Dr.Cleveland The man with whom Sallie is having an affair.
Eddie Detreville - Savannah’s neighbor who is homosexual. Sara Jenkins The ex-slave midwife who delivered Savannah and Tom (as well as almost everyone else in Colleton). She gives her life protecting the children. Günter Kraus The German priest who hid Henry from the Nazis.
Bernard Woodruff - Susan’s son. Tom coaches him in football but must stop when Bernard’s father sends him to music camp. Bernard has a chip on his shoulder but responds well to Tom.
Herbert Woodruff - Susan’s husband. He is a world-class violinist. He is cruel to his wife and son. He cheats on Susan and humiliates her in front of others. Isabel Newbury Isabel is a snobby, rich woman who is at the center of high society in Colleton. She is cruel to the Wingo family. Lila takes care of her as she is dying.
Reese Newbury - Reese is the richest man in Colleton. He is a mean man who manipulates his son and is mean to Tom. Lila marries him after Isabel, his wife, dies.
Winthrop Olgetree - The funeral director
Mr. Fruit - Mr. Fruit is an older man who seems to be mentally handicapped. He directs traffic at his at his own whim on the Street of Tides.
J. William Covington - The FBI agent that makes a deal for Luke.