Prologue and Chapter 1 Summary
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.