Here is a brief summary of the book. Feel free to check out the eNotes Study Guide on this work for more detailed information about the characters and themes in this work.
Chapter 1: We are in the seventeenth century at the beginning of slavery in America. We are introduced to the main character, Florens, a 16-year-old slave who was recently purchased and separated from her mother.
Chapter 2: We are introduced to Jacob Vaark, Florens' owner. He has sympathy for orphaned slaves and owns two other girls who have lost their families.
Chapter 3: Florens is addressing her lover, a free African blacksmith who works for Vaark. Jacob dies from smallpox and his wife discovers sores in her mouth that lead her to quarantine everyone on the estate. Rebekka, Vaark's wife, sends Florens to fetch the blacksmith. He has medical knowledge and might be able to help.
Chapters 4-5: Lina, one of Vaark's orphan slaves, recounts her time at the Vaark estate. Jacob and Rebekka's children have all died early. Lina sees the tragedy currently befalling the family (no children, Jacob dying, Rebekka sick) as a sign of nature taking its revenge against their vain felling of the trees to build their house. Lina wonders if Florens will return to the house with the blacksmith or use this opportunity to run away.
Chapter 6: Florens is on her way to find the blacksmith and contemplates how she does not like the feeling of freedom.
Chapter 7: Rebekka is in bed and delirious, remembering her early years in England as well as her journey to the New World and the enjoyable years she spent with Jacob. She mourns the children she has lost.
Chapter 8: Florens continues on her way, stopping to accept food and drink from a group of young Native Americans. She reflects on how Lina has warned her not to become involved with the blacksmith (Lina was once abused by a lover.) She stops to spend the night at the home of Widow Ealing, whose daughter is suspected of witchcraft. When the village authorities come to Widow Ealing's home to investigate her daughter's behavior, they also suspect Florens of being involved with witchcraft. The note she carries from Rebekka allows her to escape and she continues on her journey to find the blacksmith.
Chapter 9: Sorrow (another of Jacob's orphaned slaves) tells her story of living aboard a ship, almost drowning after a shipwreck, her time spent at the home of the sawyer, her failed pregnancies, and her smallpox contamination. The blacksmith arrives without Florens and finds that Rebekka is feeling better. Williard and Scully, two indentured servants who also work for the Vaarks, help to deliver Sorrow's baby. The infant is healthy, and Sorrow's joy leads her to change her name to "Complete."
Chapter 10: Florens arrives at the home of the blacksmith, who decides he will go to see Rebekka alone. Florens is left in his home to take care of a foundling named Malaik. Florens decides that she will stay with the blacksmith rather than returning to the Vaarks. She is jealous of the blacksmith's affection for Malaik and hides his cornhusk doll. The boy kicks a stool in anger, and she breaks his arm trying to hold him down. He faints, and when the blacksmith returns to see what has happened he orders Florens to return to the Vaarks.
Chapter 11: Williard and Scully, the two indentured servants, have formed a homosexual relationship and consider the Vaarks to be their family. They reflect on how the household has changed since Jacob's death and note that only Sorrow is doing well with her new baby.
Chapter 12: Florens has returned to the house following a violent altercation with the blacksmith. Williard and Scully have mistaken her as Jacob's ghost. Sorrow wants to take her baby and escape with Florens, as Rebekka is threatening to give her away. Before she leaves, Florens decides to write a message on the walls of her room with a nail. Sadly, she realizes that the blacksmith cannot read and that the house might burn down, meaning that her words will go unread. She regrets not being able to communicate with her mother who separated from her in order to care for her infant boy.
Chapter 13: Florens' mother tells the story of how she gave her daughter to the Vaarks to help her escape the cruel, abusive treatment of her mother's masters.