Plum Creek is a Texas historical novel that tells a story about the past giving way to the future. Set in post-Civil War Texas during a nine-month period in 1869 and 1870, we follow Billy McCulloch, just approaching his sixteenth birthday, on a quest with three former Texas Rangers and a former slave. Their quest is to rescue a young girl who has been taken by a band of renegade Comanches after they killed the rest of her family.
The pursuers are led by John Coffee Hays, known as Jack Hays, a former Texas Ranger who has come back to Texas from California to rescue his niece, Martha. Billy’s two uncles, John and Wonsley Baker, and Gruder, a former slave of Billy’s father, join in the pursuit. The renegade kidnappers are led by Leo Morgan, a half-breed killer, who is in the habit of capturing teenage girls after slaughtering their families.
Plum Creek is a western coming of age story and a coming of progress story. With the politics of Texas during Reconstruction in the hands of punitive carpetbaggers, former Confederates are kept from voting or serving on juries, thus disenfranchising the majority of voting age men. As Billy and the older men ride, other characters deal with the problems of everyday life in the context of a changing society. Lily Poe, the mistress of Billy's deceased father, has saved gold throughout the war, which she will use to buy out the partner she inherited with her deceased paramour's interest in a mill and cotton gin. Ashley Maitland is a lawyer and a friend of Billy’s father. He’s an older man who has seen Texas history first hand and has no illusions about the frailties of human nature that are at play in the changing society.
Several of the characters in the fictional narrative are based on historical figures. Jack Hays is widely known as the archetypal Texas Ranger. Hays County, Texas was named for him. George Paschal was a chronicler of the state legislature and published a well-known digest of Texas laws. Matthew Gaines was a black legislator in reconstruction Texas, one of several black men who were elected to the Texas legislature during the years after the Civil War. The settings in the novel shift from Austin to the San Saba river valley, from Ft. Griffin and its saloon district, known as the "flat," to San Antonio’s Menger Hotel. Plum Creek gives the reader an authentic feel for the lives of people and places of Texas during a transformative time in its history.