Linda Brent is born into slavery, but because her father works outside of his mistress’s house as a carpenter, she grows up in a happy family home with her parents and her younger brother William. She also lives near her grandmother, who buys her own freedom when Linda is young. When Linda is six, her mother dies and Linda goes to live with the family’s mistress, who treats her kindly and teaches her about religion. Six years later, the mistress dies; Linda hopes that she will be freed in her will, but instead the mistress bequeaths her to her young niece, and Linda has to go live with the Flints.
Life in the Flint household is very different from anything Linda has known before. She and her brother have to work very hard, they have little to eat, and Mrs. Flint is unkind to them and often beats her slaves—she doesn’t even let Linda go to her own father’s funeral. Linda’s grandmother tries to provide for her family and keep the children’s spirits up, but it seems that trouble is brewing—Linda’s brother William and her young uncle Benjamin are both chafing at the new restrictions in their lives, and meanwhile Dr. Flint has begun to sexually proposition Linda and threaten her that she has to do whatever he wants, because she belongs to him.
Some time after this, Benjamin runs away from his master. He is caught and thrown into the city jail, where he languishes for months before being sold to a slave trader. Linda’s grandmother tries to cobble together money to buy him, but before she does so Benjamin runs away again, eventually reaching safety in New York. Grandmother continues to save up money, hoping to purchase the freedom of some of her other children. She eventually manages to buy and free her son, Linda’s uncle Phillip.
Linda has tried to make her life in the Flint household bearable, but as Dr. Flint’s sexual interest in her becomes obvious, Mrs. Flint takes out her jealousy on her powerless slave. Mrs. Flint interrogates Linda about her interactions with her husband and forces her to sleep in her own room, where Linda fears she might one day kill her. Nevertheless, Dr. Flint is unashamed and frequently berates Linda for her failure to “obey” him. Linda says such situations are typical of Southern culture, where it’s normal for male slave owners to have many illegitimate children with female slaves, and for their wives to exact revenge on those unwilling mothers.
When she’s fifteen, Linda falls in love with a free black carpenter, who wants to marry her. However, Dr. Flint refuses to concede to the marriage or to sell her to the carpenter. Moreover, Linda is afraid to have children with the carpenter because they would legally belong to Dr. Flint and be under his power. Furious that she has fallen in love with someone else, Dr. Flint threatens to kill her or throw her in jail; eventually, fearing that he will exact retribution on the carpenter, Linda breaks off her courtship. She channels her energy into caring for William, and begins to plot an escape from slavery for him.
Linda breaks away from her own narrative to describe the cruel punishments that are rampant and accepted under slavery. For example, one man in her city locks a runaway slave inside a cotton gin until he dies, and goes completely unpunished. Slavery is especially pernicious to young girls, who are subject not only to physical but sexual violence, and have no legal or practical means to protect themselves and their chastity from men who are unashamed to have illegitimate and enslaved children. For reasons like this, slavery is degrading to white society as well as unjust to its victims.
Dr. Flint begins plans to build Linda a cottage of her own outside the town. Knowing that without his wife in the vicinity she will be completely powerless, Linda becomes desperate and takes action. She accepts the advances of another white man, Mr. Sands, thinking that he will give her some protection against Dr. Flint and preferring to give herself to a man rather than to “submit to compulsion.” Even though she has no other options, she feels deeply ashamed of sacrificing her sexual purity. She keeps her decision a secret even from her grandmother, until she becomes pregnant. When she announces her impending motherhood to Dr. Flint, he is enraged and runs her out of the house. Her grandmother is angry with her as well, saying that “I had rather see you dead” than an unwed mother. However, she takes her into her house and provides a refuge from Dr. Flint, who leaves her there for the duration of her pregnancy.
Midway through her pregnancy, Linda becomes very sick and delivers her baby prematurely. She has often wanted to die because of the hardships of her life, but now she knows she has to stay alive for the baby, and she wills herself to get well. Dr. Flint visits often, reminding her that her son belongs to him and sending her sexually explicit letters. Linda names her baby Benjamin (Benny), after her escaped uncle.
Linda continues to live in her grandmother’s house and eventually gives birth to a daughter, Ellen, with Mr. Sands. She begins to attend church meetings organized for slaves, but becomes disillusioned when the pastor simply lectures attendees about obeying their masters, saying that the Bible commands them to do so. Once, a worship leader even laughs at a mother who is distraught after her children have been sold away from her. Linda comes to feel that the practice of Christianity in the South is essentially hypocritical, just another tool to exert control over slaves. Dr. Flint is very active in the Episcopal church, but he continues to urge Linda to live a sinful life with him.
Because she still refuses to sleep with Dr. Flint, Linda is sent away from the city to Dr. Flint’s plantation, where she works as a housekeeper, getting the house ready for the arrival of Dr. Flint’s new daughter-in-law. She takes Ellen with her, but the young girl becomes sick and distressed by harsh plantation life and Linda sends her back to her grandmother. Separated from her children, Linda frequently thinks about attempting to escape, but grandmother talks her out of it. Finally, Linda learns that both her children are going to be sent to the plantation to be “broke in” and she runs away in the night.
For some weeks Linda hides at the house of an unnamed friend. Dr. Flint sends patrols to search for her all over the city; once, they arrive at the friend’s house and she has to hide in the swamp, where a snake bites her. Eventually, Linda’s grandmother confides in a white woman who has been friendly with her for years. The woman agrees to hide Linda in her own house and try to find an escape route to the Free States. The woman sends her cook, a woman Linda knows named Betty, to fetch her, and she hides in her attic for months. Meanwhile, Linda hears that William and her children have been thrown into jail, in order to coerce her into revealing herself.
In order to get the children away from Dr. Flint, Mr. Sands purchases them, as well as Benny. They are taken back to Linda’s grandmother, where they can live in safety. However, Dr. Flint is still searching for Linda and a better hiding place needs to be found. Uncle Phillip builds a concealed crawlspace in Linda’s grandmother’s shed, and Linda is conveyed there. There’s no room to stand up or walk, and it’s completely dark and airless until Linda bores a few holes in the wall. She can see her children playing in the yard but never talk to them. As the months pass, Linda’s limbs begin to stiffen, and she often gets sick. Her relatives sneak up to the shed at night to treat her.
Linda stays trapped in this hiding place for seven years. At some point, Mr. Sands gets elected to Congress; before he leaves for Washington, Linda has a secret meeting with him and makes him promise to free their children as soon as possible. Mr. Sands takes William with him to Washington and later on a trip to the North, and is very pleased with his attentiveness as a servant. However, in Boston William runs away. Mr. Sands returns bringing a new bride but without Linda’s brother.
Dr. Flint begins threatening to reclaim the children, saying that the sale contract was not legal. Mr. Sands decides to send Ellen north to live with his cousin; he tells Linda that he has freed her and she will be able to go to school, but the cousin writes a letter to Linda’s grandmother saying that Ellen has been “given” to her as a servant. Linda is desperate to get her children out of the hands of both men.
Some time after Ellen’s departure, a family friend named Peter finds a way for Linda to escape on a ship bound for Philadelphia. At first, Linda’s grandmother convinces her not to go, and they give the place to another fugitive slave in the area, Fanny. However, just before the boat leaves someone spots Linda in the shed and she has to escape quickly. After an emotional farewell to her grandmother and Benny, she and Fanny sail away from North Carolina. At first, she doesn’t trust the captain and the sailors, but they prove kind and gentlemanly and the women arrive in Philadelphia safely, where they stay with a black pastor and his family for some days.
Linda soon proceeds to New York, where she stays with a contact from the South and quickly seeks out Ellen. She finds that her daughter has not been sent to school as promised, but works as a servant and is anxious to come and live with her mother. Mr. Sands’s cousin, Mrs. Hobbs, reiterates that Ellen has been “given” to her. In order to be near her daughter, Linda finds a job as a baby nurse for a white woman, Mrs. Bruce. Her new employer turns out to be kind and sympathetic, as well as fiercely opposed to slavery. She offers to bring Ellen into her house as well, but Linda is scared of offending the Hobbs family because they know about her status as a fugitive slave.
Dr. Flint visits New York, trying to discover Linda’s whereabouts. Without telling Mrs. Bruce that she is a fugitive, Linda goes to stay in Boston for some weeks. Meanwhile, her grandmother puts Benny on a ship heading north and he is reunited with his mother. He goes to live with William, now in Boston, while Linda works for Mrs. Bruce.
During the summer, Linda accompanies Mrs. Bruce and her child on a vacation to the countryside. When she gets back and goes to visit Ellen, she finds that Mrs. Hobbs’s brother, Mr. Thorne, is visiting. He’s from the city of her birth, and probably knows that she has run away, so Linda is very worried to be discovered by him. A few days later, Ellen tells her anxiously that Mr. Thorne has written to apprise Dr. Flint of Linda’s whereabouts. Linda escapes from the city with Ellen and goes to Boston, where she finds a job sewing and lives with her two children.
In the spring, Linda is saddened to find that Mrs. Bruce has died. Mr. Bruce wants to take his daughter to meet her mother’s relatives in England and asks Linda to come as her nursemaid. Eager to make more money to support her children, she agrees. She’s astounded to find little evidence of racial prejudice in England, where she’s always allowed to eat at the same table as her employer. Even though she sees many poor people, it’s clear that their lot is much better than that of American slaves because they are free and can get an education and improve their circumstances.
Two years later, Ellen prepares to go to boarding school, where she trains as a teacher. Linda knows she must tell her daughter about her illegitimate paternity, and does so with a sense of shame. However, her daughter replies calmly that she’s always guessed who her father was and doesn’t care about him at all, saying “all my love is for you.”
After her daughter departs, Linda returns to New York to work for Mr. Bruce’s second wife, the new Mrs. Bruce, and her baby daughter. Around this time, new laws are passed allowing slave owners to forcibly recapture escaped slaves from free states. Linda feels increasingly unsafe, and hates to go outside even for walks with the baby. Soon, her family warns her that Dr. Flint is making another trip to New York. She confides in Mrs. Bruce, and her employer sends her to hide with a friend in New England for the duration of his visit.
After this latest scare, Dr. Flint dies. Linda feels she should forgive her old abuser, but she can’t bring herself to feel sad about his death. Moreover, she is still in danger because his daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Dodge, are still pressing a claim on her. Soon they too arrive in New York and Linda has to go into hiding again. Mrs. Bruce offers to buy Linda and free her, but Linda feels morally opposed to the idea of paying for the freedom to which she is already entitled. However, her employer secretly sends a lawyer to negotiate with the Dodges and succeeds in purchasing her. Linda’s grandmother lives long enough to hear about her freedom, but dies soon after.
Linda feels that an enormous weight is off her shoulders, and she’s now free to live as she likes. She is still striving to earn enough money to buy a home for her children, but she is much happier and more content than she once was. While it’s “painful” to recall her life as a slave, doing so also brings “tender memories,” like her time with her beloved grandmother.