Life on the Waller plantation is harsh and bleak. Twelve-year-old Sarny knows that it won't be long before she will be forced to leave Mammy and join the other young women who serve the master's household as breeders. Then one day a new slave arrives, bought from an overseer for a thousand dollars. He comes in a bad way, walking in front of the horses and Waller's ready whip. His back is covered with scars as thick as Sarny's hand, but he holds his head high and doesn't seem to mind that everyone is watching him.
Sarny doesn't know yet, but Nightjohn's arrival is about to change everything. For that very night, in exchange for a plug of tobacco, Nightjohn begins to teach Sarny the letters of the alphabet. With enough time and tobacco, she will be able to read. Sarny has gotten as far as the letter J, when Waller catches her tracing the word BAG in the dust on the road. The punishment for teaching someone to read is severe. What will happen if Waller finds out who Sarny's teacher is? Will her precious gift of learning be lost forever?
Newberry honor-winner, Gary Paulsen, offers a graphically realistic and historically accurate portrayal of slave society in mid-19th century America.