Dana is a twenty-six year old African American woman living in Altadena, CA. The novel begins a prologue that finds her in a hospital room just after her arm was amputated. The police think her husband Kevin is responsible for the damage to her arm, but she insists that he is not. She begins to tell her story, leading up to what happened with her arm. The following is that story.
She and Kevin just moved to their new home. They ware both writers and met at a temp agency. They both worked there to support themselves while they wrote, but Kevin had just sold his first novel and was about to quit. They began to date and married not long after, even though their families disapproved because Dana was black and Kevin was white.
As they unpack their books in their home, Dana starts to feel dizzy and falls unconscious. When she wakes, she is by a river in which a young boy is drowning. She plunges into the water and saves him. As she gives him mouth-to-mouth, his frantic mother screams that Dana is killing him. Dana ignores her and the boy, Rufus, is revived. His father arrives on the scene and aggressively points a rifle in Dana’s face. She becomes dizzy again and returns to her home.
Both Dana and Kevin are shaken and startled. Kevin saw her vanish and reappear on the other side of the room, while she clearly traveled elsewhere. While she had been gone for what seemed like at least several minutes, Kevin said she had only been gone for a few seconds.
Dana is transported once again, this time to a room with old-fashioned furniture. A boy, whom she realizes is Rufus but a few years older, is setting fire to the drapes. Dana rushes to put it out. She and Rufus acknowledge that they’d seen each other a few years back; Rufus admits that, before he began drowning, he had seen in his mind’s eye a scene of Dana and a man amongst piles of books. Through Rufus, Dana learns they are in Maryland in 1815. It is a plantation complete with slaves, owned by Rufus’s father, Tom Weylin. Dana realizes that Rufus is an ancestor of hers through recognition of the name ‘Weylin’: a family book mentioned a Rufus married an Alice and had a daughter named Hagar, who was Dana’s grandmother.
Dana is not sure where to go in the time before she vanishes again, so Rufus tells her to seek out his friend Alice and her mother, a free woman, at their cabin in the woods. Dana sets out for the cabin but hides when she hears white men. She watches them approach the cabin and beat up a man who was visiting Alice’s mother. After they leave and drag the man away, Dana tends to Alice’s mother, who was also struck.
When Dana goes outside to fetch a blanket, she sees a white man who has returned. The man tries to rape her but she fights back. This threat causes her to vanish again.
Back in the present, she tells Kevin about what happened. They prepare a bag for her with some necessities for when she no doubt has to return. When the dizziness starts again, Kevin grabs onto her and is transported with her. This time, Rufus is suffering from a broken leg, a black boy named Nigel (the same age as Rufus) at his side. Nigel goes to fetch Weylin. Kevin and Dana agree to pretend like Kevin owns Dana, and they concoct a story to this effect.
Weylin arrives, stern and annoyed with his son. He invites Kevin and Dana back to the house. There, Dana meets Sarah, the slave woman in charge of the cookhouse, and a mute young slave girl named Carrie. Weylin offers Kevin a job teaching Rufus how to read, mocking his son’s halting abilities. Kevin accepts; he and Dana stay there until they are called back to their own time.
Both Kevin and Dana begin to get used to the rhythms of life on the planation. Rufus’s mother, Margaret Weylin, hates Dana, and is both scared and jealous of her. Dana learns to cook from Sarah and spends time with Rufus, who clearly likes her. He seems to know that she is from another era. Dana is given the responsibility of teaching Rufus when Weylin decides she can do a better job than Kevin can.
Dana is transported back to the present when Weylin catches her teaching other slave children how to read and whips her harshly. Kevin, unfortunately, is left behind. In the present, Dana tends to her wounds and prepares to be sent back. She takes a book on slavery and a knife with her.
When Dana returns, a black man is beating Rufus, now a young man himself. Dana intervenes, seeing that Rufus is being beaten for attempting to rape a young woman standing nearby, her clothes torn. She realizes this is Alice. Rufus blacks out and Dana urges the two to run away. Before they leave, Alice tells her that Kevin had waited around for her for a while, but then went North. It has been five years since she was last there.
Back at the Weylin house, which Dana grudgingly admits feels like home, Rufus begins to recover, and Weylin has Dana tend to him. Rufus tries to justify his attempt to rape Alice, but Dana admonishes him.
Dana writes Kevin two letters, hoping he will return for her. Time passes. She learns Margaret Weylin went a little crazy, and went to stay in Baltimore. Nigel and Carrie married, and Carrie is pregnant. Not long after Dana’s return, Isaac and Alice are captured. Isaac is beaten, tortured and sold, and Rufus buys Alice for himself.
Dana takes care of Alice, who at first does not know she is a slave or remember anything about what happened. Over time, though, she figures it out, and grows morose and angry. She criticizes Dana a great deal. Eventfully she has to give in to Rufus’s desire to sleep with him, and becomes his mistress.
Dana decides to run away after she realizes Rufus lied to her about ever sending the letters to Kevin. She is caught, however, and beaten and whipped by Weylin. When she wakes, Rufus gently tells her that she is stupid and should not have done that. Dana understands that he loves her in a way, but is very bitter towards him.
Finally Kevin arrives and tries to take Dana away, but Rufus threatens them because he cannot bear for Dana to leave him. This causes Dana to fear Rufus might shoot her; Kevin and she then vanish back to the present.
They are together for a few days. It is a bit strange, as Kevin has changed from being alone in that time for five years. He had worked helping slaves escape, and was a wanted man in some places.
Dana is sent back once more, and arrives to see Rufus lying facedown in a pool of muddy water. She has Nigel carry him back. She sees Weylin again, who is older and gaunter. He tells her she must save Rufus. She is tasked with helping him with the fever that has set in. Thankfully he improves.
Alice is still Rufus’s mistress, but she is cooler and bitterer than before. Dana continues to work with Sarah at the cookhouse. One night Weylin has a heart attack; Dana tries to help, but cannot resuscitate him. Rufus is stunned and blames her.
This blame manifests itself in Dana being sent to work in the fields. It is backbreaking and she collapses. Rufus chides her and she begs him to understand that she did not kill his father. He admits that he knows this to be true.
Margaret Weylin returns and Dana is sent to be her servant. The old woman is much mellower than before, but annoys and frustrates Dana. Alice mocks Dana for loving the woman, but Dana is grateful to have time for her back to heal from the fields. She is angry when Rufus sells some slaves after his father’s death, and wonders what would happen if Rufus died.
Dana begins to teach Alice and Rufus’s son Joe how to read. Rufus seems to like the boy. Alice confides in Dana that she plans to run away, and Dana encourages her to wait a while. Alice gives birth to a daughter, Hagar (Dana’s grandmother). Dana is elated, but nothing happens right away and she grows weary.
Rufus refers to Alice and Dana as two halves of the same woman, and even sells a male slave who he thinks is flirting with Dana. Dana cuts her wrists that day and is transported back to the present.
Dana has a bit of time with Kevin before she is sent back again. When she returns, she is surprised to see Rufus looking fine, but then he shows her Alice hanging from the barn rafters. She killed herself when she thought Rufus had sold their children, although he had just sent them to Baltimore to punish her for trying to run away. Dana is horrified and tells him he needs to free the children.
After the funeral and burial, Rufus comes to Dana. He starts behaving somewhat inappropriately. The two quarrel with each other, and Dana goes to procure her things. Rufus follows her and tries to rape her. Dana stabs him with her knife and begins to violently be transported back to the present. Nigel arrives and sees what is happening. The dizziness sets in; the spots where Rufus grabs Dana’s arm as he dies turns into her arm becoming stuck in the wall of her present-day house. She wrenches it out, and it has to be amputated in the hospital.
In the epilogue, Dana and Kevin travel to Maryland, visiting the town and the site where the Weylin house once stood. They look up articles to find out what happened to everyone. Carrie, Nigel, and the two children were not sold, but Sarah was. Rufus was said to have died in a house fire, which Dana assumes Nigel instigated to cover up what she’d done. Saddened by the sale of the slaves, she wonders why she even came to Maryland. Kevin comforts her and says that she came to bear witness, to reassure herself that these people were real and she is not crazy.