The heroine and narrator of the novel, Dana Franklin exists in two time periods. Through the experience of time travel, Dana finds herself in Maryland in the 1800s. As a black woman, she must endure the institution of slavery while ensuring her own existence by repeatedly saving her ancestor Rufus. Dana struggles with saving Rufus, who owns slaves, and yet she learns that saving his life may allow slave families, people she comes to care about, to remain together. Dana abhors Rufus at times and feels guilty for forgiving him repeatedly. After her ancestor Hagar is born, Dana resolves to kill Rufus to defend herself from rape. She survives and ensures her familial line. Dana endures the challenges of the past through the lens of a modern woman.
Kevin Franklin writes and sells novels. An older man, he enters Dana's life as she is working to establish herself as a writer. Both protective and judgmental of Dana, Kevin complicates Dana's time traveling to antebellum Maryland; as a white man, his view of the past is from a more privileged standpoint. Kevin provides emotional and financial stability for Dana. They have an interracial marriage in 1976, only a decade after the height of the Civil Rights Movement and about a century after the abolition of slavery, making their marriage a unifying force with its own complexities.
Rufus Weylin serves as the one constant for Dana's time travel. He beckons her to his time period several times, always during moments of peril. Rufus's dependency on Dana goes beyond her repeatedly saving his life; she also takes on the role of sister, friend, and mother. Eventually, he begins to see her as a sexual replacement for Alice. Both cruel and charming, Rufus is a character ruled by his emotions, whims, and desires.
One of Dana's ancestors, Alice Greenwood is a free woman until she tries to run away with her enslaved husband, Isaac. Ravaged by dogs and traumatized, Alice's spirit and desire for freedom do not wane, though she is subsequently whipped, raped, enslaved, and psychologically controlled. Destroyed by Rufus's lie about selling their children, Alice kills herself.