The novel’s opening is mostly the perspective of Nash, Martha, and Travis’ “father” mixed with the thoughts of the English slave trader James Hamilton, which are expressed in italics. The narrator explains that he had to sell his three children to slavery because his crops failed and he had no money.
Nash’s story as an adult is first revealed through the perspective of his white master Edward Williams, who freed Nash so that he could go to Africa with the American Colonization Society to teach black natives. Edward, however, receives a letter saying that Nash had disappeared from the African village where he had been teaching. Edward immediately boards a ship to take him to Africa, and after many days of searching, a former slave of Edward’s informs him that Nash had died from fever. Edward is horribly upset, and his grief is further drawn out when he realizes that his beloved Nash was notthe holy Christian he thought him to be. He finds plenty that points out Nash’s negative behavior, such as his large collection of native wives. The chapter ends with Edward gaping at the hovel that was once Nash’s residence while natives stare on, trying to understand the apparent momentary insanity of the shocked and aggrieved stranger.
The story then switches to Martha Randolph, an old woman who, after losing her husband and daughter at a slave auction, decides to run away from her owners in Kansas and seek freedom in California. She only makes it to Colorado, however, where the group she is traveling with leaves her because she is slowing down the party. A white woman offers Martha a place to room for the night out of the bitter cold, but it is not enough. When the woman returns to Martha the next day, Martha is dead. The white woman decides that she is going to have to“choose a name for her if she was going to receive a Christian burial” (p. 94), which is ironic since Martha hated receiving a new name each time she was passed to a different owner and because Martha didn’t believe in God.
The final section is told through the eyes of Joyce, a white Englishwoman who falls in love with Travis, who is the“brother” of Nash and Martha. Since Travis’ story occurs during World War II (about a century after his supposed brother Nash's), it can be assumed that Travis is a sort of reincarnation of Nash and Martha’s brother from more than a century before. In that case, it can be implied that the ancestor narrator is not the children’s true father; rather he is some sort of all-knowing ancestor who has “listened” to his “children” for the last “two hundred and fifty years” (p. 1).
Joyce meets Travis at her husband’s store. Joyce’s husband habitually beats her, and when her husband is taken to prison for selling items on the black market, Joyce and Travis have an affair. Joyce has Travis’s baby but has to give it up after Travis dies in the war because it would be unacceptable for her to raise a black baby on her own. The chapter ends with a visit from Greer when he is 20 years old, who meets his mother for the first time after being raised in an orphanage.
The book ends with the ancestor narrator once more, who provides an optimistic view even after all his children have died, saying that though he“sold his beloved children … they arrived on the far bank of the river, loved” (p. 237).