When 15 year-old Amari’s family is murdered and her village burned to the ground, her happy life and dreams are brought to an abrupt and horrifying end. Shackled and humiliated, she and other survivors of her village are sold into slavery and transported from her native Africa to the colony of South Carolina.
On the same day that a plantation owner buys Amari as a birthday present for his 16 year-old son, he also secures the services of a young white indentured servant named Polly. Polly, imagining a life as a servant in the main house of the master, is bitterly disappointed when she is forced to live in slave quarters while transforming Amari into a proper slave. Polly’s initial feelings of superiority toward the African slaves are eventually replaced by understanding and friendship as she experiences many of their hardships and humiliations.
Amari and Polly build close relationships with the plantation cook, Teenie, and her precocious son, Tidbit. Teenie helps the girls to understand the ways of the plantation, and she also helps Amari through the humiliation of being repeatedly raped by Clay, the plantation owner’s son.
Clay’s stepmother is the only white person on the plantation who shows any kindness to and interest in the slaves. It soon becomes clear that she is something of a prisoner herself. Indeed, it is her tragedy, told in horrifying and shocking passages, that propels Amari and Polly to plan an escape, taking Tidbit with them.
The last third of the book deals with the ordeal of their attempts to reach Fort Mose, Florida, where they believe a community has been established for runaway slaves. Is there really such a place or is it a fleeting myth? Will they become free? Will they survive?
The Writing Style
This book is extremely well-written. The author describes horrific events, evoking emotional responses, but never pushing the story into repugnance. The inclusion of violence is necessary to the theme of the book – for example, Amari would never have been whipped in her own village, but the “civilized” plantation owner feels it is an appropriate punishment when she drops food on his carpet. The sequences in which Amari is raped are narrated without physical detail, but with much emphasis on her feelings and reactions. There is a scene in which Tidbit is tied to a rope and flung into a river to attract alligators for the rich landowners’ hunting pleasure. A scene involving the plantation owner’s wife and a newborn black infant is absolutely numbing, but so well-written that the characters’ reactions overshadow the actual violence.