Vyry, the nickname of Elvira Dutton, is the novel’s protagonist. She is born and raised as an enslaved person on a white-owned Southern plantation. Her life begins in the antebellum period, goes through the Civil War, and extends into post-war Reconstruction. As such, she is involved in the most significant social transformations in the South.
One significant social problem that Vyry endures is being continuously enslaved. Her father, the white plantation owner, refuses to grant her liberty and punishes her for attempting to escape. During the war, she remains on the plantation and plays an active role in household management. Portrayed as having a deeply nurturing nature, she continues to care for Lillian, her white half-sister, whose mental health completely deteriorates. During this period, she finally gives up hope that her husband will return and decides to remarry. Both men are also formerly enslaved African Americans.
Vyry’s life changes considerably with Emancipation, when she and Innis, her second husband, look for a place to settle and begin their new life in liberty. She tries to remain optimistic as they endure a series of misfortunes, but in Greeneville, her faith seems to desert her. She cannot believe that they will be able to remain there in the long term. The author presents Vyry’s integrity as a caring, nurturing person as key to their eventual success. Through offering to serve as a midwife, Vyry draws favorable attention from members of the white community, who assist them in establishing what will become a permanent home.
She is faced with another challenge when her first husband, Richard, turns up—he had not been killed in the war. Her compassionate nature is again applied in this situation, as she reunites Richard with their troubled son.