The opening begins with Avey "Avatara" Johnson packing her bags aboard her 17-day cruise on the Bianca Pride , during the late 1970s. The reason for her sudden departure began three nights before, when she had a dream about her great-aunt Cuney and a disturbing encounter in the Versailles dining-room with a peach parfait. Her first since the 1960s, the dream consists of Avey's aunt in Tatem attempting to convince Avey to follow her down the road in Tatem, South Carolina, a childhood vacation spot. When Avey resists, the two have a physical brawl. The next morning, Avey wants nothing more than to be alone, and yet cannot get away from anyone on the cruise ship, no matter where she goes. At this point, she makes the decision to leave the ship. The next morning, she packs her bags and leaves to the next port-of-call, which is the island of Grenada.
On Grenada, the atmosphere seems to be festive, as people dressed in bright clothing, carrying packages, are getting onto boats. Confused, Avey Johnson is later informed by her taxi driver that it is the annual excursion to Carriacou, a nearby island. At the hotel, the sick feeling in Avey's stomach returns, and Avey spends her last moments of consciousness painfully reminiscing about her relationship with her late husband, Jerome "Jay" Johnson, and for the first time in four years, she mourns his loss.
Avey wakes up the next day in the home of Rosalie Parvay, the widow daughter of Lebert Joseph. Along with Milda the maid, Rosalie washes Avey and feeds her a typical Carriacou breakfast, during which Lebert enters the home to see how Avey is feeling. Despite her sickness of the previous day, Avey decides to go to the dances that will take place that night.
That night, Avey, Rosalie, Milda, and Lebert all go to the "Big Drum" dances. There, Avey is at first happy merely to be a bystander and watch Lebert and other elders of the community sing and dance for the ancestors. However, by the end of the night, Avey is dancing along with the other people celebrating their cultural roots to Africa. The next morning, Avey leaves on a plane back to New York, but decides to sell her home that she no longer needs and move to Tatem, in the home left for her by aunt Cuney. There, she will demand that her grandchildren come to see her, so that she may teach them about their heritage, like Cuney did for her.