The name of a place where the main action happens - Bottom - is quite paradoxical, because it is situated on the hills, above the rich white districts. But it seems that the name is given not for the geographical location but for the overall state of the district. Even its story reflects the miserable life in there: at first Bottom was given by master to his now free slave. The master tricked the slave, giving him the most worthless path of his land, not suitable either for building or for agriculture, saying that hills are close to Heaven. This legend perfectly suits the spirit of the Bottom community. It is still poor and not glamorous to look, but people there form a unique subculture that differs drastically from the Medallion part below them.
But now the Bottom is in danger: the rich white inhabitants of the Medallion want to get rid of the district. The official causes are that it is the dwelling of criminals and other undesirable people, but everything is much simpler: the upper crust of the city wants the hills to build an especially difficult to play golf field, for those who really love the game.
The story starts from a seemingly unimportant character. His name is Shadrack, he is also a black dweller of the Bottom, but also he is a shell-shocked World War I veteran who has just exited the hospital where he tried to treat his PTSD. But even after the hospital Shadrack is pretty depressed and strange. He returns to his home in the Bottom and soon becomes notorious for his eccentricity and mostly for the holiday founded by him: The National Suicide Day, the third of January. He wants it to be the day when people can commit suicide without any repercussions from the society and their choice should be honored that day. At first he does it just as a gloomy prank, his attempt to overcome his own fear of death. But gradually the Bottom inhabitants start to accept the strange holiday, not by committing suicide but rather by tolerating the thought about it.
The next characters we meet are more related to the main story. They are the family consisting of old retired prostitute named Rochelle and her daughter Helene Sabat. Helene, who is a grown woman and has the daughter named Nel now returns to the Bottom after a trip to Helene’s hometownn to see and care for her dying mother. Helene is quite strict to Nel and oftenly scolds her literally for everything. But when they are traveling back to the Bottom via train, a white racist train conductor humiliates Helene herself. Nel silently looks at this and silently promises to herself that she will never allow such a shame happen to her. No one will ever talk to her like this.
The last set of characters is another family that is very similar to Cecile’s. But instead of living in a clean and neat home with established and, maybe, excessively rigid family life, like Helene and Nel do, these people enjoy their lives to the fullest. The matriarch of the family is one-legged grandmother Eva, with her daughter Hannah and granddaughter Sula. Eva and Hannah adopted (though informally) three orphan boys and both invite to their house lots of guests and boarders, enjoy the big company of close and distant relatives and even strangers. Both women think of sexual encounters as of something fun and enjoyable. This (and pretty much everything else in their life) shocks the local dwellers and all the Bottom considers this family sweet but very, very strange.
There was another strange and dark secret the townsfolk was happy not to know. Hannah wasn’t the only child of Eva. Her brother Plum, who also returned from the World War I, coped with his battle trauma much worse than Shadrack. He tried to drown his sorrows in a bottle and later started to use drugs. His depression became outright dangerous, seriously disrupting the life of the house. When it became unbearable, Eva poured kerosene over sleeping Plum and burned him alive. Later, when asked by Hannah, why she chose such a horrible death, Eva answered that she wished to give him a death that a true man deserves.
Despite their differences, Sula and Nel befriend each other from the very first meeting. Their friendship is something more than average feelings of two teenagers: it is fierce as a true sistership. Too bad Helene doesn’t see Sula as a proper company to her daughter. She thinks that Sula and Hannah will teach Nel bad things. Obviously, the daughter of a former prostitute knows what she talks about - no wonder that Helene grew up so prudish and strict: she doesn’t want to resemble her mother at all and doesn’t want Nel to go down by the slippery slope.
Sula is both protective towards Nel and careless towards any other people. Once, when the two girls are caught and harassed by the gang of white Irish boys, Sula cuts her fingertip in front of them, to show that she is not afraid of pain and will fight with them to the end. The boys retreat and no one tries to bully Sula and her friend anymore. But when she is playing with another boy, Chicken Little, too small to be their equal play partner, Sula doesn’t care at all. She is swinging him in circles on the river bank. Chicken Little accidentally slips out of her hands and lands into the water. He doesn’t know how to swim and soon drowns. Sula doesn’t do anything to help him and Nel is too shocked and passive to actually help. The girl doesn’t tell anyone about what happened and the girls don’t talk about what happened to each other either.
But still the death of Chicken Little presses on them and the girls start to become more distant from each other. Once, Hannah’s dress catches fire and she soon dies from the burns - it is like a weird karma for what Eva did to her son. Eva tries to save her, but she is too old and handicapped, so, while running to the aid, she falls and ends in a hospital. The last thing she remembers is Sula, standing on the second floor and looking as her mother is burning to death, motionless.
After a few years, Nel decides to follow the steps of her mother. She marries, settles down and now keeps another neat house. Sula, who wants to prove the world that she is capable to do anything alone, leaves Bottom for long ten years and goes to seek her fortune. It happens shortly after Nel’s wedding, like if Sula felt betrayed because of Nel choosing another lifestyle. During these ten years Sula lives an adventurous life, she has affairs with lots of white men, but eventually this life bores her, because all the men are the same. Unable to find anything that satisfies her equally to Nel’s friendship, Sula returns to Bottom.
But the Bottom isn’t welcoming her anymore. Sula becomes the very embodiment of evil for the locals. They consider her breaking of social norms (especially interracial affairs) disgusting and horrible. No one outright says that she murdered her mother with her ignorance, but still, the suspicion is in the air. Nel is the only one who accepts her friend back… until Sula, as a family friend, becomes too close to Nel’s husband, Jude. Openly sexual Sula who is ready to have sex anytime without making a big deal of it is much more attractive to him than modest and restricted Nel. So after sleeping with Sula for a few times, Jude abandons Nel - but finds out that Sula also doesn’t want him for herself. Nel’s family is broken, so is her friendship.
The strange part is that reappearance of Sula improves the life of the Bottom. Its inhabitants now have an anti-example and become better people just to be unlike Sula. It can’t be called uniting before the common enemy - Sula isn’t an enemy, rather she is the outcast - but still, the strange feeling of unity and friendship covers the Bottom. Sula finds a man named Ajax and tries to settle down with him, but he turns to be abusive (and feels fine with it because… well, it’s Sula) and Sula leaves him to live the rest of her life alone. Nel is able to partly restore her relationship with Sula only before Sula’s death in 1940. Still it isn’t sincere, it is just her duty to forgive a dying former friend, Nel still feels offended. We see Sula’s death from her own point of view, when the woman feels dissociated from her body and tries to say her friend that death is painless, but can’t. Still it is a powerful message: in her last seconds Sula thinks of Nel and wants to share something important with her.
With Sula’s death her impact becomes obvious: the feeling of unity in the Bottom disappears immediately after her funeral. The changes are so drastic, that next National Suicide Day gathers a great march instead of just Shadrack and a couple of his friends. The dwellers of the Bottom are not united anymore and can’t defend themselves from the white rich people of the Medallion (they are still trying to repel the population of the Bottom from the hills to make there a golf field). The march goes to the tunnel that is dug as the start of the golf field and people start trashing the tools and supplies… and the pillars that hold the new and yet unstable tunnel. So the attempt to vent their anger turns into the biggest celebration of the National Suicide Day possible, when the tunnel eventually collapses and buries dozens (if not hundreds) of people.
Later, years ago, Nel visits Eva in the nursery home and tells her everything about her relationship with Sula. But to her surprise Eva blames her for standing near Sula and also watching Chicken Little dying. At first Nel protests, seeing herself as the embodiment of virtues of their relationship with Sula… but then she has to admit that she actually enjoyed watching Chicken Little dying, no less than Sula. She never was the “good side”, just the passive one. Nel was just like Sula, that’s why their friendship was so strong. She just got used to hide behind the social norms and pretend to be good and nice and perfect. From the nursery home Nel goes to the cemetery and cries on Sula’s grave, asking to forgive her.