In 1810, Lavinia is a young woman running through the forest, obviously in distress and accompanied by a seven-year-old girl, Elly. Elly is in hysterics and clings to Lavinia’s skirt. As they make their way through the woods, Lavinia falls in the freezing cold waters of a small stream. She and Elly come to a clearing and see a large oak tree. Hanging lifeless from the tree is someone they both know very well.
In 1791, Lavinia is nearly seven years old and can’t remember her past. She is taken to a plantation called Tall Oaks owned by a Captain on whose boat she traveled. The Captain lives there with his second wife, Martha, and their two children, Marshall (age 11) and Sally (age 4).
Lavinia is sent to live in the kitchen house, where meals are prepared by the slaves who serve the main house. There she meets Mama Mae and Papa, the matriarch and patriarch of the house slaves. Dory, Mama Mae’s eldest daughter, has a sickly baby named Henry.
Lavinia is overwhelmed and barely speaks. She sucks her thumb and can’t manage to keep any food down. She is put into the care of Belle, a younger, light-skinned slave. Belle is reluctant to accept the responsibility, and Lavinia is initially unsure of her. Mama Mae helps Belle with Lavinia, and Lavinia responds to her mothering.
Belle seems to get lots of attention from the Captain, and Martha appears displeased about it. Lavinia is summoned to the main house and can barely answer the Captain’s questions about how she’s doing. He mentions her father, but Lavinia cannot remember him. In fact, when the captain asks her, she does not remember her name and is surprised at how unfamiliar “Lavinia” sounds. The Captain tells Lavinia she can work in the kitchen when she’s feeling better.
Mama Mae takes Lavinia to her quarters, a small cabin near the kitchen house, to get her settled. Later that night, Belle comes running to the cabin after a scene up at the main house. Miss Martha, who according to the slaves takes lots of “black drops," flies into a rage about Belle and seems sure that she is the Captain’s mistress. She begins to throw things at Belle, and the Captain has to restrain Martha.
When Papa hears this story, he is angry and asks if Belle requested her free papers. The captain has promised them to her but thus far hasn’t delivered them. Belle guiltily admits that she didn’t ask him but promises to do so soon.
Belle, now eighteen, is upset by her in-between and unsure status within the house. She remembers living in the big house as a young girl with the Captain. Back then her grandmother, Mrs. Pyke, doted on her and helped educate her. One day Belle went to wake up her grandmother and found that she was dead; she was devastated. Soon the Captain remarried and Belle had to go live with the slaves.
Mama Mae knows that Martha’s behavior is always worse (especially toward Belle) after the Captain leaves for another one of his long voyages. Marshall, the captain’s young son, delights in tormenting Belle when the Captain is gone. Belle wonders if he would feel the same way if he knew that the Captain was her father and that she and Marshall are actually brother and sister.
Lavinia starts to get better under Mama’s care and begins to talk more; the slaves all find her Irish accent amusing, especially Mama’s twin daughters, Beattie and Fanny. One day Belle finds that Lavinia has stolen Beattie’s doll. Mama is very stern with Lavinia, who feels deeply ashamed. That night Fanny shows up with another handmade doll; Mama has made one for Lavinia so she’ll have no need to covet anyone else’s.
Lavinia works with the animals and plays with the twins. One day they see one of the field slaves sneak into the smoke house where the meat is kept. Surprisingly, he takes a piece of board and not any of the meat. Lavinia later finds out that he was stealing it for the salt. The field slaves are treated worse than the house slaves who work in and around the kitchen house.
One day Lavinia is introduced to Mama’s oldest son, Ben. She obviously has a crush on him and begins bringing him small parts of her meals as presents, which he accepts graciously. Belle, who is also fond of Ben, notes Lavinia’s interest in him. Lavinia also sees some of the field slaves cooking corn meal with bits of the smoke house board in it for salt. Once cooked, the wood is surreptitiously burned in the fire to destroy the evidence.
Papa takes a shine to Lavinia, and she asks him if she can be one of his girls even though she is white. He says it makes no difference and happily accepts her. Dory, who waits on Miss Martha, is frequently called up to the house and leaves her baby, Henry, in Mama’s care. Mama notes to Uncle Jacob, another house slave, that Henry is very ill and will not live long.
When Henry dies, it suddenly awakens Lavinia’s memory and she is horrified by the vision of her mother and father being buried at sea after dying on the Captain’s ship. Mama comforts the distraught Lavinia and tells her that her parents and baby Henry are playing together in Heaven.
Belle is both shocked and relieved at Henry’s death. She knows it is hard on Dory, but Mama has seen similar tragedies happen in the past. Belle notices that Dory’s depression is similar to what Miss Martha goes through when she loses her babies (miscarried or stillborn). Belle is taken aback by Lavinia’s emotional outburst about her family, including the revelation she has a brother with the unique name of Cardigan. Belle is flattered by the way Lavinia constantly comes to her after chores for her approval. She also finds it charming that she and Lavinia are both interested in Ben.
Lavinia begins to open up more after her memory comes back. She remembers her brother, Cardigan, and vows to find him some day. Lavinia becomes more involved in the daily chores and follows Ben around whenever she can. Ben, Mama, Belle, Papa George, and the girls all make Lavinia feel like part of the family.
Soon the holidays arrive and with them come guests. A carriage brings Sarah, Miss Martha’s sister; her husband; and their daughter Meg (who is roughly the same age as Lavinia). The sisters squeal with joy and hug endlessly, and little Sally is delighted to spend time with her cousin Meg.
Sarah initially is taken aback when she sees Lavinia among the slaves, but Martha cuts off the conversation to avoid discussing it in front of Lavinia. As the Pykes and their guests prepare for their celebrations, the slaves get ready for their own holiday festivities. Mama Mae and Belle cook and bake, much to the enjoyment of everyone at the gathering.
While they are there, Dory and Jimmy, who was the father of Dory’s lost baby, Henry, sneak away. Ida, Jimmy’s mother, worries about the two of them. Rankin, the plantation’s overseer, has made it clear that he will punish Jimmy if he comes near Dory. Mama promises to put in a word to the Captain and sends for Jimmy and Dory.
When the Captain arrives to offer his holiday wishes, Mama asks him about Jimmy and Dory. The Captain decides to marry them on the spot in a ceremony that concludes with the two of them jumping the broom. The Captain dotes on Belle, and everyone takes notice when he asks her for a dance. Lavinia sees Marshall watching the merriment (and his father dancing with Belle) with a look of hate in his eyes.
Belle recalls the story of her real mother and how she came to the plantation. The Captain saw her at a slave auction, where the auctioneer warned him that she was difficult. Undeterred, the Captain bought her and brought her home.
When they first arrived, Mrs. Pyke, the Captain’s mother, was ill, and Belle’s mother used her knowledge of plants and herbs to make her well again. From that moment on, Mrs. Pyke became very fond of Belle’s mother. A relationship soon developed between the Captain and Belle’s mother, who quickly became pregnant. She gave birth to Belle but died of a fever shortly after. Mama Mae gave birth to Ben at roughly the same time, so she was able to nurse both Ben and Belle.
Belle’s reverie is interrupted by Mama Mae’s pointed questions about Ben. It is obvious that there is an attraction between Belle and Ben, and Mama Mae knows it presents several problems. The Captain has made it clear that he will give Belle her free papers soon and take her up North to find a suitable husband for her. For now Belle has been able to put off the Captain, insisting that the plantation is her home and the slaves of the kitchen house are her family. Mama Mae warns Belle that Ben will be punished if the Captain finds out about their growing romance.
As the holidays are ending, Mama Mae worries that Miss Martha will sink into another one of her depressions because her sister and the Captain will be leaving within weeks of each other. The Captain had married Martha with the hope that she might run the plantation as his mother did during his absences at sea. He had long ago promised Martha to give up his work on the ocean and return home, but that has not yet happened.
Mama Mae hints that Rankin, the overseer, will be harder on the slaves, especially the outdoor ones who live in a separate area known as the quarters. Martha tends to take more and more of her drops when the Captain is away; the drops...
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Little Sally’s death hits Miss Martha hard, and she almost immediately goes into labor. Mama Mae is in charge of delivering the baby and enlists Lavinia’s help. Lavinia initially is emotional and squeamish, but Mama sternly demands that she jump into action. Lavinia comforts Miss Martha as Mama delivers the baby.
When the doctor arrives at the house, he recommends more laudanum drops to help her sleep. In the days that follow, Martha wants nothing to do with the baby and does not even name him. She takes to calling Lavinia Isabelle, which Mama believes is the name of a deceased sister of Martha’s. The doctor asks Dory to nurse the child since she just gave birth herself and is still producing milk. Dory does not...
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The Captain prepares for his departure and finds Mr. Waters, the tutor, packed and ready to leave. Mr. Waters makes a big show of how unneeded he feels, and the Captain persuades him to stay and encourages him to take a firm hand with Marshall. Before he leaves, the Captain also tells Mama that Martha should stop taking the laudanum drops.
When the Captain first goes, Martha sinks into a depression and demands the laudanum, but Lavinia suspects Mama waters it down to wean her off of it. Eventually Martha grows stronger, but she still wants nothing to do with Campbell, who is often cared for by Lavinia and Fanny.
One day, Marshall comes to his mother and tries to persuade her to stop his studies. When she...
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Belle knows the truth of what happened the night of the hog-killing. After Mr. Waters tried to force himself on Dory, Ben killed him. Belle and Mama drugged Rankin so that they could dispose of Waters’s body in the privy without Rankin noticing. They packed up all of the tutor’s things and disposed of them, and Jimmy took his horse far off the land and let him run away. Finally, Mama Mae had Belle forge a letter in Mr. Waters’ handwriting stating that he was resigning and leaving. They even used candle wax to create a fake seal for the letter. Despite the dire circumstances, Mama and Belle can’t stop laughing.
As she comes out of her drug-induced fog, Martha begins to take a shine to Lavinia and asks to spend...
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As Christmas approaches, Miss Martha becomes more and more anxious for the Captain’s return to Tall Oaks. One day, Mama Mae runs into the house to tell them that Rankin’s friends have returned and beaten Jimmy.
Martha grabs some guns for her and Uncle Jacob and loads them. She and the two men head down to the kitchen house and find a horribly beaten Jimmy outside. Through the window, Lavinia can see Rankin and the men in a circle around Belle, pushing her around. Ben is tied up in the corner, and another man stands apart looking uncomfortable. Marshall is watching the whole encounter and seems excited by it.
Martha enters the house and fires a gun up at the ceiling. Everyone stops and looks at her....
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One day in the spring of 1793, Lavinia (now 9) finds out from Beattie and Fanny that her life may change. Mama thinks Lavinia will eventually move up to the big house and have slaves of her own. Lavinia cries and says that she doesn’t want to be a white girl. Mama comforts her and tells her that if she does, she can help look after everyone. Lavinia’s fears are augmented by Martha, who tells Lavinia to remember that the slaves are different from her.
In the Captain’s absence, Marshall spends lots of time with Rankin, and Mama believes they are up to no good. Miss Martha seems to have given up on Marshall, blaming him for Sally’s death.
In May, the Captain returns and immediately locks himself away...
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In November, a carriage brings the Captain and Miss Martha back to the big house. Everyone is shocked by how frail the Captain seems. When Lavinia does not see Campbell, she tries to ask about him. Mama shushes her and explains that the baby too has died. Immediately after this, Sukey reaches out for Lavinia, who smacks her hands away. Instantly filled with guilt, Lavinia comforts the child. Like Mama, Lavinia initially is unwilling to accept baby Campbell’s death; however, she invests all of her energy in caring for Sukey, and this helps her grieve.
The Captain continues to struggle with his health throughout the winter, getting better only to worsen again. Belle visits him and he explains that the fever epidemic...
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Belle is alone in the kitchen house when she feels someone put a knife to her neck. She turns around and finds Rankin and Marshall there. She tries to fight, but Rankin beats her and holds her down as Marshall rapes her. When they leave, Uncle Jacob finds Belle cowering in the corner. He soon brings Mama, who wants to tell the Captain. Belle adamantly refuses; she is ashamed and worries that the Captain will send her away. Mama promises to keep her secret.
It had been a long day at church, and a very pregnant Lucy entertained the group with her beautiful singing voice. When the coach pulls up in front of the cabins, Papa takes Will and Ben aside to explain about Belle. This sends Ben into a rage and he wants to head up...
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Belle has trouble adjusting to living alone after Lavinia is gone; the adjustment is also hard for Sukey. The upside of her new arrangement is that whenever Mama is away, she can have a rendezvous with Ben. Belle still dislikes Lucy but seems willing to take whatever time with Ben she can get.
When Lavinia arrives in Williamsburg, she is completely overwhelmed by her new lifestyle. Unlike the quiet of country living in Tall Oaks, life in Williamsburg is bustling with activity because the Maddens live in the center of the city. Nearby are the courthouse (where Mr. Madden works), the College of William and Mary, and the public hospital where they commit Miss Martha.
At first Lavinia tries to befriend Miss...
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Belle is surprised that Lavinia’s first letter doesn’t reveal much about her new life or ask much about the people she loves at Tall Oaks. Belle writes back and tells her that things are much better with Will Stephens as the overseer; however, all of the slaves worry about the day that Marshall comes of age and takes over. She tells Lavinia that Jamie is great but neglects to mention how white he is or how one of his eyes is clouded over and blind.
One day Mama breaks the news that Ben and Lucy are expecting another baby. Belle, who still has been having romantic evenings with Ben, is enraged. When she confronts Ben, he tells her that Lucy knows about him and Belle and puts up with it. Even though she is mad at him,...
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Grieving after her brother’s death and unsure of what future she has, Lavinia accepts Mr. Boran’s proposal. The engagement is announced on her sixteenth birthday, but Lavinia has a nagging feeling of dread about marrying the awkward older man. Meg is very vocal about her disapproval of Lavinia’s impending marriage, and she and Lavinia get into an argument about it.
During her free time between lessons, Lavinia begins to sneak over to the hospital to visit Miss Martha; Lavinia is sad about her illness and still feels a sense of obligation and tenderness.
One day, Lavinia hears a visitor downstairs with Miss Sarah. She is delighted to find that Will has come to Williamsburg. Miss Sarah disapproves of...
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Once Lavinia’s wedding plans are announced, Mr. Madden insists on waiting until after Lavinia’s seventeenth birthday before going through with the wedding. In the mean time, Lavinia has more and more concerns about Mr. Boran. His initially affectionate behavior has become steadily more aggressive, and he constantly finds reasons for the two of them to be alone. Not realizing his forward behavior, the Maddens always oblige. Lavinia feels as if she is running out of ways to dodge his groping.
A few months before the wedding, Mr. Boran arranges for a lavish party downtown. Meg, who has heretofore sworn off all interest in boys, is suddenly taken with a young man, much to Miss Sarah’s delight. At the party, Mr. Boran...
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Belle is shocked when she receives Lavinia’s letter. She knows nothing of Mr. Boran and his inappropriate behavior, and she cannot begin to imagine why Lavinia would want to marry Marshall. One of the twins suggests that maybe Lavinia has become attracted to the material things Marshall could provide, but Belle believes that out of character for Lavinia. Shorty after the letter's arrival, a huge shipment comes from the Maddens. It is full of supplies to redecorate the big house in preparation for Marshall and Lavinia’s return.
Upon arriving home, Lavinia finds much difficulty in making the transition to become lady of the house. Expecting everything to stay the same, Lavinia is surprised by the formal reception she...
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Dinners become increasingly fraught for Lavinia as Marshall begins to show more and more of his temperamental nature. Many dinners are occupied by Marshall’s railings against Will Stephens, who he believes has mismanaged the plantation. In addition, Marshall is still angered by Lavinia’s familiarity with the servants.
One evening at dinner, he notices Beattie wearing a new necklace and discovers that Lavinia bought it for her with an expense account he provided for her; enraged, he demands that Beattie return it.
Another night, when Lavinia corrects Marshall, he grabs her hand harshly and will not let go. Uncle Jacob briefly slips out of the room and within moments Mama comes in and asks for Lavinia’s...
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Lavinia, trying to help both Jamie and Miss Martha, allows the two to begin spending time together. Miss Martha already has seen improvement through a new medicinal regime of regular doses of laudanum. When Jamie arrives, he is still pining for his mother and welcomes the maternal affection from Martha, neither of them realizing that they are grandmother and grandson.
The arrangement continues until Marshall discovers them one day and tries to separate them. When Lavinia attempts to intervene, he nearly strikes her and then runs off. Shortly thereafter, Lavinia reveals to Marshall that she is pregnant, and his attitude toward her changes. Although he still imbibes too much, he is kinder and gentler to Lavinia. She also...
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Lavinia takes to her bed for several days after her discoveries about Marshall, Beattie, and Jamie. Mama comes to visit and tells Lavinia that she knows about everything Lavinia has discovered. Lavinia is desperate for details about Belle and Marshall, worried that they’ve had a relationship. Mama reminds her that all of that is in the past and there is nothing she can do about it. She also tells Lavinia that she is making herself sick, which isn’t good for the baby.
Lavinia rebounds and, in February, she gives birth to a baby girl named Eleanor, called Elly for short. The child is everyone’s pride and joy, and Marshall is particularly sweet to Lavinia. He does not, however, resume their marital relations. By...
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As she watches Lavinia ride away with Will, Belle feels a mixture of relief and concern about Jamie. Lavinia brought her a locket with a lock of his hair in it and a picture of him drawn by Sukey, but Lavinia doesn’t seem totally stable. Belle knows that Lavinia is attracted to Will, but Ben insists that Will is a church-going man and would never betray his wife. Lucy wonders why the same rules don’t apply to Ben, and she and Belle share a good laugh at his expense.
Beattie is pregnant again by Marshall, and Lavinia tries in vain to go see Will Stephens to find out what she can do. She makes it partway through the woods before Rankin stops her. He insinuates that he might keep her secret in exchange for sexual...
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Lavinia’s laudanum usage slowly increases. At first she only relies on it to calm herself down at bedtime, but then she starts mixing it with her wine and meting it out throughout the day. She marvels at the effect it has on her and is happy to have found something to numb her pain. She writes to Meg to tell her of the wonder drug that has helped her misery, but Meg—with her thorough knowledge of science—tries to warn Belle of its addictive properties. After this, Belle ceases correspondence with her.
One night Lavinia is awoken from her drug-induced sleep by Fanny, who wants her to come help Mama deliver Beattie’s baby. When Lavinia woozily arrives at the kitchen house, she sees Beattie walking with Mama,...
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Five years pass and little changes. It is now 1810, and Belle has lived for a long time without her son, Jamie. In the interim, Tall Oaks has continued to decline. Marshall drinks as much as ever, but now he gambles as well. He also has sold land and slaves to pay debts.
Will Stephens has prospered but worries about Lavinia and the others. He tried to check on her once, but Marshall threatened him with a gun.
Belle knows of Lavinia’s laudanum addiction from the periodic visits of the Tall Oaks servants. Those visits, however, have become more infrequent because Rankin polices the grounds heavily and Marshall has threatened to sell any slave who disobeys him.
Belle has been raising George. He...
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At Will Stephens’s plantation, two women are expecting babies: Lucy and Will’s wife. Lucy’s most recent pregnancy comes close on the heels of her last one, and Belle feels for her.
As they talk about Will’s wife’s delivery, Belle keeps having the feeling that they’re being watched. When they finish, Belle catches a glimpse out of the corner of her eye and hardly can believe what she sees. Even though he is now a tall young man, Jamie is instantly recognizable to his mother. Belle wonders why he has come to see her after all these years and decides to find out.
The next day she sends George and all of the little ones away so that she has her cabin all to herself. She begins hoeing in the yard and...
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By late summer, the heat is unbearable and everyone at the big house stays inside as much as possible. Not knowing about Jamie’s secret visit to Belle, everyone is puzzled by his sudden change in demeanor. He is withdrawn even from Miss Martha, who withers without his attentions.
One day as they sit gathered in Martha’s room, Jamie notices a commotion outside. Fanny soon runs into the room in a panic because Marshall is going to sell her husband, Eddy, along with most of the other slaves. Beattie confirms that Marshall has admitted that he is even going to sell Mama and Jamie, thinking that they would still go for a good price.
Just as Lavinia is about to formulate a plan, Marshall and Rankin burst in....
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Belle hasn’t seen any sign of Jamie and is worried sick. One evening she decides to head back through the woods to Tall Oaks to look for him. Ben intercepts her and tries to talk her out of it, knowing how dangerous it would be if they were to run into Marshall or Rankin; she insists, however, and he accompanies her.
When they arrive at the big house, they sneak in through the basement and make their way to Miss Martha’s room. Belle hopes to find Jamie at the bedside of his beloved grandmother but instead finds Uncle Jacob with her. Miss Martha is obviously not right, and Ben and Belle soon realize she is dead. Uncle Jacob explains that without Jamie, Miss Martha could not calm down. He kept giving her laudanum and...
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Lavinia, still hiding with Elly above Ben’s cabin, doesn’t yet know what happened. In the morning, news comes that Rankin and Marshall have Belle, so Lavinia takes Elly and begins the trek through the woods back to the plantation. It is difficult traveling, and Elly sometimes has a hard time keeping up with their mother.
When they arrive, Lavinia is horrified to see Mama’s body hanging from a large oak tree; she tries to protect Elly from the sight of it. Next Lavinia sees Marshall, who calls out to her. Another voice calls out and now Lavinia sees Jamie, who is charging Marshall with a shotgun. Jamie calls Marshall “Father” and then shoots him. Thinking quickly, Lavinia grabs the rifle herself and tells Jamie...
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