Dana is a twenty-six year old African American woman; she is smart, bold, independent, and perspicacious. She works at a temp agency to supplement her writing; it is there that she meets Kevin. She is sent back to the past to save her ancestor Rufus's life, and has to adjust to life as a slave. She learns what slavery is really like as she grows close to her fellow slaves, but also maintains a relationship with Rufus, who, as he grows older, becomes more difficult to tolerate due to his prejudices and controlling tendencies. She has to kill Rufus to prevent him from raping her, which sends her definitively back to the present. She struggles with the ramifications of this decision, but ultimately has a greater understanding of the relationship between past and present.
Dana's husband, Kevin is a young white man who writes novels for a living. He is progressive and loves Dana, but occasionally seems privy to some of the same privileges of whiteness that the Weylins are. He travels back to the past once with Dana and is stuck there alone for five years. During this time he becomes active in abolitionism, but he is scarred both emotionally and physically by his time in the past. His transition back to the present is rough, but he regains his footing as best he can and continues to support Dana.
Dana's ancestor, son of Tom Weylin and heir to the plantation, master of Alice, father of Joe and Hagar. Dana is called to save his life starting when he is a young boy; she remains with him until she kills him when he tries to rape her after Alice's death. As a child Rufus is sweet but sometimes petulant; as he grows up, slavery begins to imprint its deleterious effects upon him and he grows prideful, demanding, willful, and occasionally cruel. He does not treat his slaves well and makes Alice his mistress against her will. While he does love Dana, it is with a fierce possessiveness that borders on cruelty and oppression.
The owner of the plantation and the father of Rufus, Tom is stern but occasionally fair. He and Rufus have a fraught relationship, as Tom is uncompromising, judgmental, and harsh towards his son. He is characterized by the racial prejudices of the day and does not treat his slaves like human beings. He does seem afraid of Dana, however, and allows her to take care of Rufus. He dies of a heart attack.
Dana's ancestor, Alice is a young free black girl and a friend of Rufus. When she grows up, though, she resists Rufus's advances and marries Isaac. After she is caught escaping with Isaac, she is beaten and purchased by Rufus. She is strong-willed, beautiful, and bitter against Rufus and even Dana, to whom she refers as a "white nigger" for seemingly not pushing back against slavery as she should. She bears Rufus two children, Joe and Hagar, and kills herself once she thinks Rufus has sold them.
A free woman and the mother of Alice, she is treated poorly by white patrollers when the man she loves, one of Weylin's slaves, comes to see her one night. She gives Dana refuge that night as well. Later Dana learns she died.
The "wife" of Tom Weylin and mother of Rufus, she is young, uneducated, restless, and pretty when Dana first meets her. She is jealous of and hostile to Dana. After she suffers from losing more children, she moves to Baltimore. When Tom Weylin dies, she returns. Now much older, she has mellowed and is less cruel to Dana, who becomes her servant. It is assumed she did not die in the house fire Nigel set.
A middle-aged, strong-minded, and loyal slave who works in the cookhouse, Sarah nurses a hatred of Margaret Weylin for selling almost all her children except Carrie. Sarah is the sort of woman, Dana muses, who 1960s Black Power members would claim capitulated to slavery, but Dana comes to see her strength amidst adversity. She looks out for Dana throughout the novel, and is sold after Rufus's death.
A sweet but mute slave girl and the daughter of Sarah, Carrie befriends Dana; she also eventually falls in love with and marries Nigel. She is not sold after Rufus's death.
The son of Luke and a young boy when Dana first meets him, Nigel grows up a slave on the Weylin plantation. He later marries Carrie and has children with her. He is friendly and helpful to Dana, and spends his time looking out for Rufus as well. He is assumed to have set the house fire at the end of the novel to cover up Dana's killing of Rufus. He is apparently not sold after Rufus's death.
Nigel's father, a strong and independent slave. He believes he can say and do mostly what he pleases, but eventually is sold and learns that this is not the case.
A slave girl whom Dana befriends. She is the mistress first of Weylin, then Fowler. Rufus sells her.
The slave girl who betrays Dana's escape plan and whom Alice and Sarah later beat.
Alice and Rufus's son, Joe is sweet and smart. He calls Rufus "Daddy," and Dana is tasked with teaching him how to read.
Dana's grandmother, the daughter of Alice and Rufus. Dana is waiting for her to be born in order for her family line to continue.
An overseer. Cruel and careless, he sleeps with Tess.
A slave who works at Rufus's plantation, but is sold after Rufus sees him flirting with Dana.
A cruel white overseer who beats Dana when she is sent to the fields.
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