Harriet befriends a gentle and intelligent slave named Nat Turner and inadvertently gives him the tools he needs to start a bloody uprising of slaves across the Southampton countryside. Harriet is a bastard child of the Whitehead family who just wants to be accepted by her half siblings. Mr. Whitehead, the head of the family, was killed while out at sea and Harriet came under the guardianship of his wife. Harriet now writes letters for her foster mother, whose eyesight is failing. She really admires her foster mother because she observes that everyone in the community respects her and the woman seems to know how to run a fair and decent household. Harriet is the youngest in the family and her older half-brother Richard is a minister who is hankering to become the head of the household now that his father is dead. He is of the belief that slaves have no morals and Harriet should not be so familiar with her slave girl, Violet. He is a strict slave-owner who doles out punishments left and right for what he deems unsatisfactory behavior from his slaves. Margaret, Harriet's half-sister, is also difficult to get along with as the girl is spoiled, arrogant and prone to flirting with the slaves while knowing full-well that Richard punishes the slaves when they stare at her in an unseemly manner. Harriet must content herself with Violet's company. Violet is half-black, half-white. Richard's wife, Pleasant, secretly teaches Harriet and Violet to read and write. When Harriet isn't writing letters on behalf of her foster mother, she is writing to her Uncle Andrew who is an artist. Harriet dreams of joining the artist community when she grows up.
One day, Harriet learns that Mrs. Whitehead's favorite slave boy, Owen, has gone missing. Mrs. Whitehead sends out notices and posts rewards for anyone who has seen him. Harriet knows that Violet has helped Owen escape. She learns that Owen has gone off with another slave named Nat Turner, who is part legend in the Negro community. Nat Turner is a reverend and a talented carpenter and inventor. Other slave-owners, including Mrs. Whitehead, have been trying to get Nat Turner to work for them. A few days later, Harriet gets permission from Richard to go see Nat Turner give a baptism. At the baptism, several white boys stir up trouble but luckily, they leave without too much damage done. After the baptism, Violet introduces Harriet to Nat Turner. Nat tells Harriet that he plans on bringing Owen home but asks that Harriet try to cajole Richard into promising he won't whip the boy for running away. Harriet promises. When Nat visits Harriet's home with Owen in tow, Richard looks like he's about to throw a fit but Mrs. Whitehead steps in to calm the situation. Eventually, Owen is taken back in and Nat hired to refurbish one of Mrs. Whitehead's tables.
Over the next few days, Nat works on the table. Nat asks Harriet to let him look at a map of Southampton Country. Harriet hesitates because giving a Negro any reading materials or maps is just asking for trouble. But, more importantly, Harriet doesn't want to be caught with the map as maps are rare items. So, she pretends to ask her Aunt Pleasant to teach her about the Southampton countryside as an excuse to get her hands on the map and reproduce an exact copy in secret. She is so proud of her work, she initials the map. When she's about to give the copy to Nat, she encounters Margaret, who has found out that Nat has been smuggling books from their library to read. Margaret still doesn't have any concrete proof, but she is just biding her time and toying with Nat. Meanwhile, Nat wants to borrow the map for three weeks but Harriet can't afford to let him keep it for that long. Nat tells her he only wants it so he can travel and preach God's word. Later on, she learns that Nat plans on also preaching about letting Negroes have freedom from slavery.
One day, the landowner of a neighboring plantation decides to whip one of his slaves. Apparently, this slave tried to run away and then turned on his slave master. All the neighboring slave owners are invited to send their slaves to witness the punishment to see what happens to slaves that turn on their owners. Later, Harriet finds out that the slave was whipped so many times he died and then his body was burned because it is illegal to kill a slave but the slave owners wanted to make it look like an accidental death. After the incident, the other slaves become disturbed and wary. Harriet learns that Nat Turner is planning to do something soon and she is afraid that by giving him a map, she may have helped him start something dangerous.
The next day, Harriet wakes up late to hear Owen warning her to run away because Nat Turner has roused up a gang of slaves and is riding the countryside, killing white folk. Before Harriet can get away, however, she is caught by Nat who uses her to threaten Richard to burn his cotton fields. After burning the cotton fields, Nat beheads Richard in front of Harriet. During the ensuing chaos, Harriet escapes to a neighboring plantation. After explaining what happened, the men of the plantation take off to warn other white folk. After the uprising fizzles out, Harriet is allowed to return home, She finds out that everyone in her family – Richard, Margaret, Mrs. Whitehead, Pleasant – are all dead and she is now in charge of the Whitehead plantation. Violet and Owen are still alive, though, and they help Harriet pull herself together. Everyone in their neighborhood thinks Harriet is like Paul Revere, having saved many lives with her warning.
Meanwhile, Nat Turner is still on the loose though the authorities are now after him. Harriet worries that when they find him they will also find the map she gave him which has her initials on it. Apparently, Nat wasn't getting as much success as he'd have liked since many of the bound slaves refused to join his cause and instead, helped their masters to fight him and his men. Harriet also learns that Nat Turner and his men killed fifty-seven people but the only person Nat personally killed was Margaret, whom he lusted for. When it is revealed that Nat has been caught by the authorities, Harriet sneaks off to his hide-out to search for her map. She finds it, but it makes her feel like the whole reason why his uprising did so much damage was because of the map she gave him.
When Harriet returns from the hide-out, she finds out her Uncle Andrew has finally arrived. She explains everything that has happened over the past week and even the truth about how she might be involved because she gave Nat the map. Her Uncle Andrew insists that they hand over the map to the authorities, but he tells her they will remove her initials so that she isn't directly incriminated. Finally, he tells her a surprising truth – that he's her real father. He explains that he and Mrs. Whitehead became estranged because of his affair with an English authoress, who is Harriet's birth mother. After his ship sank, he pretended to be dead because he thought it would be easier on his wife if he gave her space and dignity.
The story ends with Harriet's father selling the plantation and trying to re-build a life for himself and his daughter.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like that this story is about Nat Turner and his controversial actions. On the one hand, he was fighting for all the injustices of slavery but on the other hand, his actions were akin to terrorism and many innocent women and children were slaughtered during the uprising. I think Ann Rinaldi did a good job taking the reader through these complex motivations and difficult moral situations.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was at the end of the story when Harriet finds out that she has a kind, understanding and wise father after all. Throughout the book, Harriet had been corresponding with her mysterious Uncle Andrew whose values seemed more aligned with hers in terms of his perspective on slavery. After the tragedy of her whole family being murdered, Harriet has a chance to pick up the pieces and perhaps live a new life following the values that she thinks are important.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Harriet was a complex character whose psyche is torn between trying to treat the slaves with humanity but at the same time coming to terms with the fact that she is still a white person who owns slaves. It is because she treated Nat Turner with more respect than most white folk did that she may have appealed to his sympathy during the massacre and escaped his slaughter.