Dana is the narrator and heroine of the novel. A young Black woman writer living in the end of the twentieth century, she finds herself plunged into the antebellum South of the nineteenth century, an alien world in which she must struggle to establish an identity and to maintain her freedom. Dana must also battle her conscience. Only if Rufus, her forebear, survives will she herself live, so she must constantly save him. At the same time, she wonders if she is morally bound to let him die, thereby helping dozens of slaves. Further complicating matters are her feelings of genuine affection for Rufus. She likes him, despite his cruelty to her and her friends. Each time Dana saves Rufus’s life, he strips her of another piece of her dignity, which forces her to think about her own limits. By the end of the novel, she discovers that she is willing to kill to defend herself against rape.

Dana claims that her marriage to Kevin is sound, and that as a couple they have not been harmed by their travels to the South. Still, while they are there and when she talks to him about her experiences there, she finds that a wall springs up between them. Kevin cannot understand everything Dana tries to tell him about her life in the South as a slave, but Dana accepts his limited understanding. Although she knows that he is an imperfect husband and person, she is committed to him as the man she has chosen to live her life with. Dana’s identity as a writer is just as important to her as her identity as a wife. She finds that while there are things she can’t share with Kevin, there is nothing she can’t write about.