Cora, the protagonist of the novel, begins as a “stray” on the Randall plantation, a child with no one to look out for her after her mother Mabel runs away. Throughout the novel, Cora maintains a sense of disconnection from groups of people. At Randall, her identity as a stray makes it possible for Ava to force her from her cabin and into the Hob, where damaged and abandoned women live. Without allies, she must defend her garden plot from Blake alone, and the experience of standing up to him changes her. In that conflict, she finds the strength Ajarry had in defending the plot and Mabel had in running away. While she is still a stray, after the incident she is seen as a dangerous person rather than only a victim. Others keep their distance and spread rumors about her. Alice rejects her contributions to the feast on Jockey’s birthday.  

Although South Carolina seems to offer a chance to join a more welcoming community, Cora is wary there as well. While Caesar socializes with new people, Cora sticks to work and the dormitory, practicing her letters while the other girls gossip together. Only in Indiana, in the warm community of Valentine Farm, does Cora begin to reach out to others, building a friendship with Sibyl and Molly and a romance with Royal. Even there, however, she keeps her distance from most of the group, leaving when music leads to dancing. When the prospect of a vote on the future of the community looms, Valentine corrects her when she says that “they” rather than “we” will decide the next step. Cora does not believe the community will truly keep her safe, and it cannot. In the ghost tunnel with Ridgeway and Homer, Cora is once again left with no one to take care of her but herself. She escapes them and the threat of a return to Randall with the same ferocious determination that won her plot back from Blake.