On June 9, 1976, it is the twenty-sixth birthday of Dana, a young black woman. She and Kevin Franklin, her white husband, move into their new apartment in Southern California. Dana does the majority of the unpacking and settling in; Kevin focuses on his office and then stops helping. Dana gets dizzy, and her surroundings fade away. When she comes to, she finds herself in the early 1800s in Maryland. A young white boy named Rufus is struggling in a river. Dana wades in after him, but he is unconscious by the time she reaches him. She drags him to the shore and resuscitates him. Tom Weylin, Rufus’s father, arrives and points a gun at Dana, terrifying her. Following another dizzy spell, she reappears in her apartment in 1976.
Several minutes later, Dana again gets dizzy and disappears. This time, she is whisked back to 1815. Rufus, now a few years older, watches in horror as his bedroom drapes burn. He had set fire to them because he was angry with his father for selling a horse he wanted. Dana puts out the fire, talks to Rufus, and escapes from the house before Weylin finds out she is there. She runs to the home of Alice Greenwood and her mother, free blacks who Dana suspects may be her ancestors. A group of young white men smash down the Greenwoods’ door, drag out Alice’s husband, who is a slave, and beat him. They also beat Alice’s mother. After the men leave, Dana comes out of hiding and helps Alice’s mother. Dana steps outside, and a returning white man finds her, beats her, and attempts to rape her. Dana fears for her life. Following another dizzy spell, she returns home to her own time.
The next time Dana time travels, Kevin comes with her by holding onto her. Back at the Weylins’, Rufus has fallen out of a tree and broken his leg. Nigel, a young black boy, runs for help, and Weylin comes with his slave, Luke. Rufus will not let Dana leave, so everyone returns to the house together. Kevin and Dana stay on the plantation for several weeks and help educate Rufus. But when Dana gets caught teaching Nigel to read, Weylin whips her. Dana returns to 1976, but Kevin does not arrive in time to go with her.
After eight days at home, Dana time travels back and finds that Kevin has left the Maryland area and that Rufus has raped Alice Greenwood. Alice’s husband, Isaac, a slave, is beating Rufus badly. Dana convinces Isaac not to kill Rufus, and Alice and Isaac run away while Dana gets Rufus home. She stays in Maryland for two months. Although Rufus lies about how he got injured, Alice and Isaac are caught, and Alice is beaten and ravaged by dogs. As punishment for helping Isaac escape, Alice is made a slave. Rufus, who is in love with Alice, buys her. He forces Dana to convince Alice to sleep with him after her body has recovered. After Rufus fails to mail her letters to Kevin, Dana attempts to run away. As a result, she receives a vicious whipping, which so hurts and frightens her that she loses the will to run away again. Kevin shows up, as Weylin had written to him, and the couple attempts to escape. Rufus catches them on the road and shoots at them, but they manage to time travel together back to the 1970s.
After a few days, Dana time travels by herself back to Maryland and finds Rufus very drunk and lying facedown in a puddle. Weylin refuses to get a doctor. Over the course of many days, Dana nurses Rufus back to health. Rufus remains weak for weeks. Weylin has a heart attack, and Dana is unable to save him. Rufus blames her for his father’s death and forces her to work in the fields until she collapses.
Rufus is much harsher with Alice than he is with Dana. Alice is jealous of the kindness with which Rufus treats Dana. Alice gives birth to her second child with Rufus, Hagar, who is Dana’s direct ancestor. She tells Dana that she plans to run away as soon as she can. She fears that she is getting too used to Rufus, that she doesn’t hate him enough anymore. Weylin’s wife, Margaret, returns. Dana is forced to care for her. Rufus sells off some slaves, including Tess, his father’s former consort. He also sells Sam, a field hand, as punishment for flirting with Dana. When Dana tries to interfere, Rufus hits her. She slits her wrists in an effort to time travel and is successful.
Dana is back at home for many days. She and Kevin quarrel a little about Rufus. Kevin is jealous of his relationship with Dana, which Dana finds ridiculous. When Dana returns to the plantation, she finds that Alice has attempted to run away. To retaliate, Rufus told her that he sold her children, although actually he only sent them off to live with his aunt in Baltimore. Alice is sick with grief and eventually kills herself. Racked with guilt and anger about Alice’s death, Rufus nearly kills himself. He keeps Dana at his side almost constantly. One day, he tells her that she is so like Alice he cannot stand it. He catches her by the wrists, and Dana struggles free. She goes to the attic, planning to slit her wrists in order to get home, but Rufus follows her and attempts to rape her. Dana stabs him twice with her knife, killing him. She returns home immediately. Her arm is severed and crushed in the spot where Rufus was holding it.