Caroline is no match for July. The white Englishwoman may try to subjugate her Black slave by calling her Marguerite instead of her real name and threatening to send her back to the fields, but July is smarter than Caroline. She takes her time responding to Caroline’s hysterical calls, blames washerwomen for the loss of pearl buttons on Caroline’s dress (July took them), and retaliates to a kick by over-tightening Caroline’s corset. July knows Caroline won’t send her to the field because she has no other companion or even a husband. Yet July is still Caroline’s property.
When she was a child, July was taken from her mother, Kitty, who works in the sugarcane fields of Amity plantation on Jamaica. Kitty was frequently raped by the Scottish overseer Tam Dewar; it’s assumed July is his daughter. When Caroline, newly arrived at Amity to live with her brother John, the owner of Amity, saw Kitty and July, she took July to become her lady’s maid, fully separating her from her mother. Caroline has since told July that her mother was sold away.
Caroline is planning an extravagant Christmas celebration. Godfrey, the slave in charge of her household, tries to cheat her by asking for more money than is necessary for preparations. For once, Caroline sees through the ruse. She slaps Godfrey, hard.
John decries the expense of the party, given that money is short. When Caroline forces him to make a toast, John talks of rumors of a slave revolt in Jamaica. Conversation turns to mutiny and the debasement of slaves—standing by to serve the table—instead of the lighthearted socializing Caroline wants.
Abolitionism’s influence is growing in England, as the attractive, well-dressed Mr. Nimrod tells the slaves. Nimrod bought his own freedom. All the young women are enamored, but he flirts with July.
While the slaves have their own Christmas party, Godfrey sends July to steal more wine from Caroline’s party in the house. One of the white guests notices and calls July to the table, groping her as he orders her to confess to stealing. July is saved by soldiers bursting in: there’s been a slave uprising, and plantations are burning.
All the white guests leave with John to help put down the rebellion. Caroline is left with July to sob at the failure of her party. It’s only then that Caroline realizes July and Godfrey laid a dirty bed sheet instead of fine linen on the table.
July fans the flames of Caroline’s terror, then leaves her to hear news from Nimrod, who has just arrived. He says white people are fleeing the island: Caroline should ride into town immediately to board a ship that’s leaving soon. July helps Caroline quickly pack.
When Caroline orders Godfrey to take her into town, he demands that she pay him. Shocked, she strikes at him—but he catches the blow and throws her to the ground. He insists that she call July by her real name and extracts payment from Caroline before hiding her in a cart to take her to town.
July romps through the empty house, mocking Caroline. Nimrod appears, and they kiss. He carries her to John’s bedroom—all the white men are gone, he says. They sleep together.
That night would change July’s life forever, narrates an old woman writing July’s story in the future.
July and Nimrod slowly wake to the sound of a carriage and Caroline’s voice. They quickly hide under the bed as John enters his room and closes the door. He kneels, offers a brief prayer saying that despite efforts to put down the rebellion “we are done for,” and shoots himself.
Hearing the gunshot, Caroline and Tam enter. July gasps when the hysterical Caroline sits on the bed, and Tam finds Nimrod, but not July. Suicide is a crime, so he and Caroline will frame Nimrod for killing John in order to save the plantation, Tam says. They’ll shoot Nimrod and say he was killed as he tried to escape. July jumps out from under the bed, shoves Tam, grabs Nimrod, and flees.
They run to the field slaves’ settlement. July is recognized, and Kitty sent for in the fields. Tam arrives with other men on horseback and finds July and Nimrod. He shoots Nimrod point blank and turns on July. Kitty appears and stabs him before he can kill her daughter. As the other white men close in, she tells her daughter to run. They beat her as July escapes into the fields.
The Christmas Rebellion of 1831 is put down. Many slaves hang, including Kitty.
July gives birth to her own child, a son. She deposits him at the doorstep of Trelawney Baptist Church—the Baptists are known for encouraging abolition. July can’t bear to see her son grow up a slave and be separated from her, like she was from her mother.
July now toils as a field slave again. Eventually, Caroline takes her back into the house—she’s all alone and needs her only companion. She puts July in charge of the house.
A new overseer named Robert Goodwin arrives. He comes with surprising news and an unexpected attitude: slavery is soon to be abolished, and he’s glad.