Russell's Knob is not paradise. But already in 1863 this New Jersey highlands settlement is home to a diverse population of blacks and whites and reds who have intermarried and lived in relative harmony for generations. It is a haven for Dossie Bird, who has escaped north along the Underground Railroad and now feels the embrace of the Smoot family: Duncan (so much older than Dossie; could he expect her to be his helpmeet?), his reticent sister, his exuberant nephews, and a circle of friends that includes the local spirit woman, Noelle.
Even though Sewing Annie Coats and her son, Gabriel, have managed to buy their freedom, their lives are still marked by constant struggle and sacrifice. Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, where the Coatses operate a tailor's shop and laundry, is supposed to be a "promised land" for former slaves, but it is effectively a frontier town, gritty and dangerous, with no laws protecting black people.