Kindred scholars have noted that the novel's chapter headings suggest something "elemental, apocalyptic, archetypal about the events in the narrative," thus giving the impression that the main characters are participating in matters greater than their personal experiences.
Prologue Dana wakes up in the hospital with her arm amputated. Police deputies question her about the fantastical circumstances surrounding the loss of her arm and ask her whether her husband, Kevin, beats her. Dana tells them that it was an accident and that Kevin is not to blame. When Kevin visits her, we learn they are both afraid of telling the truth because they know nobody would believe them.
The River Their predicament began on June 9, 1976, the day of her twenty-sixth birthday. The day before, she and Kevin had moved into a house a few miles away from their old apartment in Los Angeles. While unpacking, Dana suddenly becomes dizzy, and her surroundings begin to fade away. When she comes to her senses, she finds herself at the edge of a wood, near a river where a small, red-haired boy is drowning. Dana wades in after him, drags him to the shore, and tries to resuscitate him. The boy's mother, who had been unable to save him, begins screaming and hitting Dana, accusing her of killing her son, whom she identifies as Rufus. A man arrives and points a gun at Dana, terrifying her. She becomes dizzy again and arrives back at her new house with Kevin beside her. Kevin, shocked at her disappearance and reappearance, tries to understand if the whole episode was real or a hallucination.
The Fire Dana managed to wash off the filth from the river before the dizziness sets in once again. This time, she is whisked back to a bedroom where a red-haired boy has set his bedroom drapes aflame. The boy turns out to be Rufus, now a few years older. Dana quickly puts out the fire and speaks to Rufus, who, unafraid, confesses he set fire to the drapes to get back at his father for beating him after he stole a dollar. During their ensuing conversation, Rufus's casual use of the word "nigger" to refer to Dana, who is black, initially upsets Dana, but then leads her to figure out that she has been transported back in time as well as space, specifically to Maryland, circa 1815. Following Rufus's advice, Dana seeks refuge at home of Alice Greenwood and her mother, free blacks who live on the edge of the plantation. Dana realizes that both Rufus and Alice are her ancestors, and will one day have children. At the Greenwoods', she witnesses a group of young white men smash down the door, drag out Alice’s father, who is a slave, and whip him brutally for being there without papers. One of the men punches Alice's mother when she refuses his advances. The men leave, Dana comes out of hiding, and helps Alice’s mother, only to be confronted by one of the white men, who hits her and attempts to rape her. Fearing for her life, Dana becomes dizzy and returns to 1976. Though hours have passed for her, Kevin assures her that she has only been gone for a few minutes. The next day, Kevin and Dana prepare for the possibility that she may travel back in time again by packing her a survival bag and by doing some research on black history from the books in their home library.
The Fall In a flashback, Dana recounts how she met Kevin while doing minimum-wage temporary jobs at an auto-parts warehouse. Kevin becomes interested in Dana when he learns she is a writer like him, and she befriends him even though he is white and their coworkers judge their relationship. They find they have much in common; both are orphans, both love to write, and both their families disapproved of their aspiration to become writers. They become lovers.
As Kevin is leaving for the library to find out how to forge free papers for Dana, she feels the dizziness coming back. This time, Kevin holds on to her and also travels to the past. They find Rufus writhing in pain from a broken leg. Next to him is a black boy named Nigel, whom they send to the main house for help. Rufus reacts with violent disbelief when he finds out that Kevin and Dana are married: whites and blacks are not allowed to marry in his time. Dana and Kevin then explain to Rufus that they are from the future and prove it by showing the dates stamped on the coins Kevin carries in his pockets. Rufus promises to keep their identity a secret, and Dana tells Kevin to pretend that he is her owner. When Tom Weylin arrives with his slave Luke to retrieve Rufus, Kevin introduces himself. Weylin grudgingly invites him to dinner. Once back in the Weylin plantation, Margaret, Rufus’s mother, fusses about her son's well-being and, jealous of the attention Rufus shows Dana, sends Dana to the cookhouse. There, Dana meets two house slaves: Sarah, the cook; and Carrie, her mute daughter. Unsure as to what their next move should be, Kevin accepts Weylin's offer to become Rufus's tutor. Kevin and Dana stay on the plantation for several weeks. They observe the relentless cruelty and torture that is rained down upon the slaves by the cold and practical Weylin, the petty and hysterical Margaret, and the capricious and spoiled Rufus. While none are sadistic or evil, they all feel entitled to treat the slaves as property. Weylin catches Dana reading and whips her mercilessly. The dizziness overcomes her before Kevin can reach her and she travels back to 1976 alone.
The Fight In a flashback, Dana remembers how she and Kevin were married. Both of their families opposed the marriage due to ethnic bias. While Kevin’s reactionary sister is prejudiced against African-Americans, Dana's uncle abhors the idea of a white man eventually inheriting his property. Only Dana's aunt favors the union, as it would mean that her kids would have lighter skin. Kevin and Dana marry without any family present.
After eight days of being home recuperating without Kevin, Dana time travels to find Rufus getting beaten up by Alice Greenwood's husband, the slave Isaac Jackson. Dana learns that Rufus had attempted to rape Alice, once his childhood friend. Dana convinces Isaac not to kill Rufus, and Alice and Isaac run away while Dana gets Rufus home. She learns that it has been five years since her last visit and that Kevin has left Maryland. Dana nurses Rufus back to health in return for his help delivering letters to Kevin. Five days later, Alice and Isaac are caught. Isaac is mutilated and sold to traders heading to Mississippi. Alice is beaten, ravaged by dogs, and enslaved as punishment for helping Isaac escape. Rufus, who claims to love Alice, buys her, and orders Dana to nurse her back to health. Dana does so with much care, but when Alice finally recuperates, she curses Dana for not letting her die, wracked with grief for her lost husband.
Rufus orders Dana to convince Alice to sleep with him now that she has recovered. Dana speaks with Alice, outlining Alice's three options: she can refuse and be whipped and raped; she can acquiesce and be raped without being beaten; or she can try run away again. Injured and terrified from her previous attempt to run away, Alice gives in to Rufus's desire and becomes his concubine. While in his bedroom, Alice finds out that Rufus did not send Dana's letters to Kevin, and tells Dana. Furious that Rufus lied to her, Dana runs away to find Kevin, but is betrayed by a jealous slave, Liza. Rufus and Weylin capture her and Weylin whips her brutually. Still, when Weylin finds out that Rufus has failed to keep his promise to Dana to send her letters, he writes to Kevin and tells him that Dana is back on the plantation. Kevin comes to retrieve Dana, but Rufus stops them on the road and threatens to shoot them. He tells Dana that she can't leave him again. The dizziness overcomes Dana and she travels back to 1976, this time with Kevin.
The Storm Dana's and Kevin's happy reunion is short-lived, as Kevin has a hard time adjusting to the present after living in the past for five years. He shares a few details of his life in the past with Dana: he witnessed stomach-churning atrocities against slaves, traveled farther and farther up north, worked as a teacher, helped slaves escape and had to grow up a beard to disguise himself from a lynch mob. Disconcerted that he does not feel happy to be back home, he grows angry and cold. Deciding to let him work his feelings out for himself, Dana packs a bag in case she time travels again.
Soon enough she finds herself outside the Weylin plantation in a rainstorm, a very drunk Rufus lying face down in a puddle. She tries to drag him back to the house, then gets Nigel to help her carry him. Back at the house, an aged Weylin appoints Dana to nurse Rufus back to health under threat of her life. Suspecting Rufus has malaria and knowing she cannot help much, Dana feeds Rufus the aspirin she has packed to lower his fever. Rufus survives, but remains weak for weeks. Dana learns that Rufus and Alice have had three children and that only one, a boy named Joe, has survived, though Alice is pregnant again. Rufus had forced Alice to let the doctor bleed the other two when they had fallen ill, inadvertently killing them. Weylin has a heart attack and when Dana is unable to save his life, Rufus sends her to work in the corn fields as punishment. By the time Rufus repents his decision, she has collapsed from exhaustion and is being whipped. Rufus then appoints Dana as the caretaker of his ailing mother, Margaret. Now the master of the plantation, Rufus sells off some slaves, including Tess, Weylin's former concubine. When Dana grows angry with him for the sale, Rufus explains that his father left debts he must pay. He then convinces Dana to use her writing talent to stave off his other creditors, despite the fact that Dana abhors secretarial work, and once had a fight with Kevin about typing his manuscripts. Time passes and Alice gives birth to a girl, Hagar, who is Dana’s direct ancestor. Alice confides to Dana that she plans to run away with her children as soon as possible, as she fears that she is forgetting to hate Rufus. Dana convinces Rufus to let her teach his son Joe and some of the slave children how to read. However, when a slave named Sam asks Dana if his younger siblings can join in on the lessons, Rufus sells him away as punishment for flirting with her. When Dana tries to interfere, Rufus hits her. Faced with her own powerlessness over Rufus, she retrieves the knife she has brought from home and slits her wrists in an effort to time travel.
Dana awakens back at home with her wrists bandaged and Kevin by her side. She tells him of her eight months in the plantation, of Hagar's birth, and of the need to keep Rufus alive, as the slaves would be separated and sold if he died. When Kevin asks if Rufus has raped Dana, she responds that he has not, that a rape attempt would be the act that would cause her to kill him, despite the possible consequences. Fifteen days later, on the 4th of July, Dana returns to the plantation where she finds that Alice has hanged herself. Alice attempted to run away after Dana disappeared, and as punishment Rufus whipped her and told her that he had sold her children. In reality, he had sent to them to stay with his aunt in Baltimore. Racked with guilt about Alice’s death, Rufus nearly commits suicide. After Alice’s funeral, Dana uses that guilt to convince Rufus to free his children by Alice. From that moment on, Rufus keeps Dana at his side almost constantly, having her share meals and teach his children. One day, he finally admits that he wants Dana to replace Alice in his life. He says that unlike Alice, who, despite growing used to Rufus, never stopped plotting to escape him, Dana will see that he is a fair master and eventually stop hating him. Dana, horrified at the thought of forgiving Rufus in this way, flees to the attic to find her knife. Rufus follows her there, and when he attempts to rape her, Dana stabs him twice with her knife. Nigel arrives to see Rufus's death throes, at which point Dana becomes terribly sick and time travels home for the last time, only to find herself in excruciating pain, as her arm has been joined to a wall in the spot where Rufus was holding it.
Epilogue Dana and Kevin travel to Baltimore to investigate the fate of the Weylin plantation after the death of Rufus, but they find very little; a newspaper notice reporting Rufus's death as a result of his house catching fire, and a Slave Sale announcement listing all the Weylin slaves except Nigel, Carrie, Joe, and Hagar. Dana speculates that Nigel covered up the murder by starting the fire, and feels responsible for the sale of the slaves. To that, Kevin responds that she cannot do anything about the past, and now that Rufus is finally dead, they can return to their peaceful life together.