The setting of this popular young adult novel is pre-American Civil War Manhattan. The focus on the life of Isabel, a young slave who, in spite of being given her freedom by her former owner, is sold into slavery when her old mistress dies, is set against the backdrop of the approaching Revolutionary War as England is taking over New York City. In particular, the rise of the two opposing forces of loyalists and rebels (the colonists) and their various stances on slavery allow the author to examine the history of slavery in the United States and portray something of the reality of what life was like in those times. The setting of this novel therefore exposes the completely powerless state that slaves lived in. In Chapter 2, for example, when Isabel tries to protest that she is now free because her mistress had said that on her death she would free both Isabel and her sister, her objections are cruelly squashed, in spite of the legality of her case. Note how she tries to argue her position to the pastor:
Ruth and me are free, Pastor. Miss Finch freed us in her will. Momma, too, if she had lived. It was done up legal, on paper with wax seals.
Even though Isabel read the will herself, Mr. Robert, because he is white and male, assumes control of her and quickly sells her and her sister to another owner to try and make as much money from his aunt's will as possible. This event, occurring as it does at the beginning of the novel, makes the context very clear: the novel is set in a time and location where slaves have no rights, and even those that are legally bestowed upon them can be taken away from them.