This book begins in the hospital, as Diane is trying to convince the police that her boyfriend is not responsible for her horrific injuries. They do finally believe her, in part because there is no way he could have enmeshed her arm into a wall.
Dana Franklin, a black woman writer, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday in 1976 when she is snatched from her Southern California home and transported to the bank of a river in the antebellum South where she saves the life of a young white child who appears to be drowning. When the child's parents arrive, they begin to beat Dana; when the child's father attempts to shoot her, she is transported back to the twentieth century. The child is Rufus Weylin, whom Dana later discovers is to be the father of one of her ancestors, a child born of Weylin's rape of Alice Greenwood, one of his slaves. Thus, the preservation of his life is critical to Dana's survival. She is transported to the nineteenth century whenever his life is in danger, and she returns to the twentieth century whenever her life is in danger.
She begins to develop an attachment to Rufus; in every life-saving encounter with him, she attempts to teach him not to fall into the racism endemic in his family and southern society. In essence, she tries to save both his body and his soul. But her trips back in time are too infrequent to have any lasting effect on Weylin, who buys into the racist and sexist system that surrounds him. Dana takes an interest in the Weylin slaves, particularly Alice, and uses her literacy and knowledge of modern medical skills to help them. But in order to guarantee her own existence in the future, she also must encourage Alice to have sex with Rufus. Eventually, Dana too is made a slave and forced into an intimate understanding of the horrors of slavery and her own limitations.
The tension of the oddly symbiotic relationship between Dana and Weylin makes this book a riveting read. By transporting a modern-day African American woman into slavery, Butler vividly brings to life the hardships endured by the slaves. Dana frequently compares her strength and survival skills to those of the enslaved women and finds herself wanting. In the end, Dana finds the strength to break free of her physical slavery and the hold that the past has on her, while ensuring her own survival in the present, but she can never again forget the struggles of her exploited ancestors.
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