After Lizzie inherits a quilt and a diary from her dead grandmother, she begins having visions that take her into the lives and hardships of her grandmother, great-grandmother, great-great grandmother, and the woman with whom the visions first originated—the slave woman and master cloth dyer, Bessie. The quilt was made by her grandmother after she fled her own family for fear that her similar visions would either hurt her children or land her in an institution, while the diary was written by her great-grandmother, mostly chronicling the visions her own mother had of being a slave in pre-Civil War America.
At first, Lizzie is able to hide what is happening to her from her family—however, the visions begin coming more regularly until she can barely tell who or where she is anymore. After a particularly painful vision, in which she relives Bessie’s trip from Africa to America aboard a slave ship, Lizzie wakes up to find her body covered in blood, fresh scars all over her body marking where Bessie had been beaten by slavers and deep welts around her wrists and ankles where Bessie’s manacles had dug into the flesh. These scars remain with Lizzie for the rest of her life, continually reopening whenever Bessie’s tortured memories encroach on Lizzie, causing her parents to send her to an institution where she can be monitored and medicated for fourteen years. The institutionalization turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Lizzie, giving her the time she needs away from society to follow her ancestors’ lives through and come to grips with her heritage.