This short novel is a stark portrayal of American slavery in the 1850s through the eyes of the slaves. Its narrator is Sarny, a twelve-year-old girl, who tells of the momentous events that follow the arrival of Nightjohn, an enslaved adult male, at the plantation of Clay Waller. Nightjohn's impact is immediate, devastating in some ways, and hopeful in other ways. Himself a literate man who escaped from the South, Nightjohn has voluntarily returned to servitude in order to help slaves learn to read and write. Nightjohn has realized that illiteracy is the slave owner's tool of oppression and that literacy is the slave's weapon to fight back. It is such a dangerous weapon that those brave enough to seize it risk disfigurement and death at the hands of their masters.