By the Water's Edge charts the development of the central character as he grows through a myriad of problems inherent in poverty, neglect, and alcoholic parents. The author grows from a child to an independent adult during the course of the novel. With gentle humor, he tells of overcoming hunger, isolation, and many other hardships as a result of poverty. His mother, who is of Cherokee ancestry, teaches her son the survival skills that will not only carry him through childhood but adulthood as well. The mother's premature death leaves the father, who is poorly educated and unskilled, alone to handle a large family. With the loss of a sister through adoption, the young boy develops a mistrust of his father that is never totally vanquished. His lifelong quest to find his sister gives a poignancy to the story that anyone can appreciate.