Set in 1840, some 25 years before the Civil War, Fox's novel is about Jessie Bollier, a young white boy, who, for some extra money, played his fife near the docks in New Orleans. One day he is kidnapped, sent to a slave ship, and forced to play his music so that the slaves on board would dance and keep their muscles strong.
Other characters in the novel include Clay Purvis and Benjamin Stout sailors who kidnaps Jessie; Captain Cawthorne, the ruthless leader of the ship; Ras, a slave on board whom Jessie befriends, as they are the same age; Agatha Bollier, Jesse's aunt; Mrs. Bollier, his mother; Betty, his sister, and a number of others.
In the end of the novel, Jessie manages to resume a somewhat normal life. He becomes an apothecary, (a pharmacist) and manages to put his horrific past behind him and what has become of Ras and others whom he'd known. One thing is remarkably different for Jessie, however. He can no longer enjoy music: "For at the first note of a tune or a song, I would see once again as though they'd never ceased...black men and women and children...lifting their tormented limbs...drowned beneath the clanging of their chains.