Abigail Kirk is born Lynette Kirk, a name her mother Katherine regrets and her father Weyland loves. When Abigail’s father leaves Abigail and Kathy for a younger woman, Abigail renounces the name Lynette, and chooses for herself “Abigail” because it sounds like a witch’s name.
Four years after his departure, Abigail and her mother still live in a modern, high-rise apartment building designed by Weyland. Abigail is fourteen years old, a thin plain girl who is clever but reserved, and very much a loner. She feels there is an “empty place” inside of her, but doesn’t know what created it or could possibly fill it. She frequently babysits for her next-door neighbor Justine Crown’s children, Vincent and Natalie.
Down at the playground, Abigail has started to see children playing an athletic but slightly disturbing call-and-response game called Beatie Bow, in which a child in a sheet chases other children round the yard until the next Beatie Bow is tagged. The game thrills and excites Vincent but frightens Natalie badly. Natalie insists that even the children who play the game are frightened of it, and that the only one unperturbed by the bizarre ritual is a “little furry girl” who Natalie often sees watching from a corner of the playground. One evening, Abigail, sewing with Natalie, takes a bit of crochet from the Crown family’s rag bag and decides it would make a great collar for a green dress she’s working on.
Kathy tells Abigail that she has secretly been seeing Weyland—Weyland wants the three of them to live as a family once again, and has offered to move Kathy and Abigail to Norway to live with him while he undertakes an architectural course. Abigail is incensed, unable to believe that her mother would let Weyland back into their lives; Abigail’s mother assures her, though, that love is a powerful force, and that Abigail will not be able to understand it until she experiences it for herself. One evening, after an argument with her mother, Abigail stops at the playground—darkness is falling, the air is cold, and the little furry girl is again in the corner of the playground. Abigail approaches the little girl, who becomes frightened and runs away. Abigail pursues the little girl down the winding neighborhood streets as the clock in the town square chimes six. After emerging from an alleyway, Abgail finds herself surrounded by horse-drawn carriages, candle-lit lamps, and strangely-dressed people: she has traveled back in time.
Abigail is taken in by the little furry girl, who is the titular Beatie Bow of the children’s game, and the rest of her family—the kindly Granny, who believes that Abigail is the mysterious “Stranger” who will save the Bow family’s “Gift,” the lame, sweet girl Dovey, the strapping young seaman Judah, the sickly child Gibbie, and lastly Samuel Bow, the children’s father, who suffers visions of his traumatic time fighting in the Crimean War and lashes out violently. The year is 1873. Abigail is afraid that she’ll never find her way back to her own time, but soon realizes that though she has traveled far in time, she has not gone far in space—she is practically in her own backyard.
After an attempt to escape fails miserably, Abigail realizes that the Bow family is obsessed with preserving the “Gift” of second sight that runs through their family’s blood, and will not let her go until she fulfills her mysterious duty to save the four Bow children, though what shape her heroism will take is unable to be foretold. The link between the past and the present is revealed to be the bit of crochet on Abigail’s dress—Granny and Dovey have crafted a pattern for such a project, but have not made it yet, and know that it is how she found her way back in time. Abigail is reluctant to accept her role at first, but eventually realizes how kind, generous, and special the Bows are—she even falls in love with Judah, but is devastated when she realizes he has been betrothed to Dovey since childhood.
One evening, after a trip to the beach with Beatie and Judah, Abigail returns to the Bow home to find that Uncle Samuel, in one of his fits, has set it ablaze. She saves the family from the fire, and in the aftermath of the blaze, Granny at last allows Abigail to return home.
Back in her own time, Abigail finds herself missing the Bows. She goes to the public library to read more about what happened to them, and finds that Judah perished in 1874 on a seafaring journey—Abigail attempts to use the magical bit of crochet to return back to the Victorian era and warn the Bows, but she is unable to.
The narrative jumps ahead four years into the future. Abigail is nearly eighteen years old, and has been living abroad with her parents. The Kirks have decided to return to Sydney and live in their old apartment. Abigail’s bitter longing for Judah and all the Bows has subsided somewhat, but she still carries memories of them with her. Abigail decides to check in on her next-door neighbors, the Crowns; they still live in their apartment, and all of them are delighted to see her. Natalie has just been out shopping for her eighth birthday, and excitedly introduces Abigail to her uncle Robert Bow—Justine’s brother. Abigail is shocked to find that Robert is the spitting image of Judah. As she wonders how this could be, she realizes that Justine must have been a descendant of the Bows all along, and that Natalie must be the most recent recipient of the Gift, as she was able to see Beatie on the playground all those years ago.
Robert greets Abigail familiarly, as if they’ve known each other for many years, and is taken aback by his own reaction to her, as surprised by it as she is. Robert asks if he can call upon Abigail, and she says that she can—the two plan to go through Robert and Justine’s family Bible that weekend, as Abigail teases Robert with the fact that she once knew “some Bows.”
That Saturday, Robert and Abigail sit down with the Bible and examine the tree. Abigail realizes that it was not Judah or even Dovey who passed on the family line, and thus the Gift, but sickly Gibbie. Beatie became the headmistress of a great school in Sydney. Abigail, overwhelmed, begins sobbing with grief, and Robert kisses away her tears. She tells him the entire story of her time with the Bows, and he believes her. Abigail realizes that time is not a black hole—it is a river, always changing, but pushing the same waters from source to sea. Katherine comes into the kitchen and asks Abigail and Robert what they’re doing—Abigail coyly responds that the two are playing Beatie Bow.