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?


Best known for her contemporary African American characters, Draper's latest novel is a searing work of historical fiction that imagines a fifteen-year-old African girl's journey through American slavery. The story begins in Amari's Ashanti village, but the idyllic scene explodes in bloodshed when slavers arrive and murder her family. Amari and her beloved, Besa, are shackled, and so begins the account of impossible horrors from the slave fort, the Middle Passage, and auction on American shores, where a rice plantation owner buys Amari for his 16-year-old son's sexual enjoyment. In brutal specifics, Draper shows the inhumanity: Amari is systematically raped on the slave ship and on the plantation; a slave child is used as alligator bait by white teenagers. And she adds to the complex history in alternating chapters that flip between Amari and Polly, an indentured white servant on Amari's plantation. A few plot elements, such as Amari's chance meeting with Besa are contrived. But Draper builds the explosive tension to the last chapter, and the sheer power of the story, balanced between the overwhelmingly brutal facts of slavery and Amari's ferocious survivor's spirit, will leave readers breathless, even as they consider the story's larger questions about the infinite costs of slavery and how to reconcile history. A moving, personal author's note discusses the real places and events on which the story is based.