Sarny, a 12-year-old slave girl in the ante-bellum South, faces a relatively hopeless life. Her chief duties at the plantation of Clel Waller are serving at table, spitting tobacco juice on roses to prevent bugs, and secretly conveying intimate messages between Waller’s wife, Callie, and Dr. Chamberlaine. Then Nightjohn arrives. A former runaway slave who bears telltale scars on his back, he takes Sarny under his wing and, in exchange for a pinch of tobacco, secretly begins to teach her to read and write, a crime punishable by death. “Words,” he says, “are freedom. Slavery is made of words: laws, deeds and passes.” He starts by drawing letters in the dirt and cautions her that no one must know. At her baptism, Sarny steals a Bible that belongs to Waller’s son, Jeffrey, and practices reading by lantern-light in the slave quarters. The same Bible serves another purpose when, on a blank page taken from it, Nightjohn forges a pass for Outlaw, a young slave, to use in escaping to freedom in the North with his beloved Egypt, a slave on another plantation. Waller finds the Bible and demands to know who stole it. Delie, who cared for Sarny as a child, fears for her now and accepts the blame. But Nightjohn forestalls the lashing Delie is to receive, saying he’s the one, for he can read. He tries to run away but is caught, and his hand is tied to a chopping block. With an ax, Waller delivers the severing blow, exacting the brutal penalty for Nightjohn’s literacy. As he is dragged off to be sold, he tells Sarny, “When they cut off one hand, the other hand grows stronger.” That night Sarny writes a pass for Egypt that will let her join Outlaw on the flight to freedom. Two days later their escape is discovered and the false passes found. Waller knows Nightjohn wrote Outlaw’s pass. But who wrote the second? He interrupts a church service to demand the answer, threatening to kill all his slaves if no one tells. Sarny confesses, but declares he’ll kill no one, for the slaves represent his wealth. As Waller raises his rifle, Sarny implores Callie to speak up for her, hinting that she has read the messages to Dr. Chamberlaine. Callie refuses, but the doctor, fearful Sarny will reveal the relationship, says he’s at fault. He tells of teaching Egypt some reading and writing, but now declares it was a mistake. Callie orders that Sarny be sold, and as the girl is joined to a line of other slaves, she asks if any of them have tobacco to trade. What has she to give in return? they want to know. And Sarny draws an A in the dirt.