The book is mostly an autobiography of the author and Harriet Jacobs clearly states it in the introduction. She adds that she’d rather kept her story untold, because it is too much pain even now for her to remember everything that happened. But still, Harriet feels that she has to disclose everything she endured in her life. She hopes that her book will help the audience understand what slavery looks like and why it must disappear forever. Another woman - Lydia Maria Child, a famous abolitionist, adds her words to the author’s introduction and confirms that Harriet’s story is true.
The author starts the story of her alter-ego named Linda Brent from the very beginning. Linda is a black girl, a slave from her birth. But in her early childhood she doesn’t even know this. She is as happy as any other baby, growing up in a loving family. Linda’s parents live relatively well for slaves (perhaps, because their skin tone was lighter than average): they have their own space and free time to spend it with their daughter, also they are educated enough to teach her everything a white free girl should know. Her mother’s mistress is benevolent enough to take six-year-old Linda to her own house when her mother died. The woman genuinely cared for the little girl, teaching her to read and write and giving her a decent home education. But soon her mistress also dies, bequeathing Linda to her distant relative, a five-year-old girl named Emily Flint.
Now the twelve-year-old Linda belongs to the girl twice younger than she is. But it isn’t as bad as the father of her new mistress: Dr. Flint. Emily may be neglecting and ignorant, treating Linda like a toy, but Dr. Flint sees the young slave as… another kind of toy in the most creepy way possible. He assaults Linda, whispering to her ear his dirty fantasies, leaving her erotic notes and trying to lure her into his secret cabin, built specially for his love affairs. Moreover, Mrs. Flint utterly hates the young girl, seeing her as lustful seducer, who deliberately arouses her husband. Linda takes it with horrifying calm. She tells the readers some stories she heard about an even more horrible case: two sisters raised together, but one was the free mistress and other was her slave and a sexual toy for their common father.
Linda tries her best to evade Dr. Flint, even making a temporary alliance with Mrs. Flint (by swearing on the Bible that she won’t sleep with her husband) but she understands she can’t reject him openly and can’t avoid him forever. So the girl, driven to her despair by the event horizon, decides to have sex with anyone else at least to choose her first man by herself. Linda also hopes that her lost of virginity and possible pregnancy will repel Dr. Flint and make him angry at her enough to sell her off. Linda doesn’t think about consequences like possible death of childbirth in such an early age, psychological trauma or rage of Dr. Flint resulting in something worse than selling her away. She just doesn’t want to lose her virginity with him. By any means.
Linda chooses the unmarried and relatively young white neighbor called Mr. Sands. She openly states that she is ashamed of such an affair but it is still better than sleep with Dr. Flint. Mr. Sands, from his side, has nothing against sleeping with an underage slave. So does Linda, knowing that slave women can’t afford themselves to have the moral standards as white free ones: she understands she is a property and everything she can do is to choose lesser evil and not suffer too much. Linda has two children with Mr. Sands: Benny and Ellen. But her plan works only partly: indeed Dr. Flint doesn’t want to sleep with her now… but her kids are now his slaves and he is able to do anything with them. He becomes even crueler to Linda and eventually makes her an ultimatum: either she sleeps with him and he sets her and her children free or she rejects him that last time and he sends her to the plantation of her son to be broken by the exhausting labor. Linda chooses the latter still.
She is immediately sent away from the cozy house she got used to to the hut on the plantation. But soon she realizes that her fate will be really unbearable and, moreover, her children will taste all the revenge of Dr. Flint. She can’t stay and can’t part with her family also - so, after a month of using all her wits and planning talent, Linda comes up with the plan. She runs away… but only to hide in the small space in the attic of her grandmother’s home. She hopes that Dr. Flint will sell her children away and she will be able to trace them.
Some words have to be told about Linda’s grandmother, Aunt Martha. When Linda (and Martha’s) mistress was dying, she promised to grant freedom to her elderly slave. But Dr. Flint, whose possession she became, ignored her last will, trying to sell Aunt Martha away. The sister of the deceased mistress, knowing about her wish, bought the slave and freed her, letting her return to her house as a free woman. That’s why Aunt Martha’s home was a comparatively safe haven for Linda. Again, Linda tells about it with calmness that send chills down the reader’s spine. She casually reminds the “ordinary sorrows” of black mothers who must watch their children being sold away, their families broken forever. Sometimes they manage to find them again, but most often their kids are lost forever.
In the meantime Dr. Flint doesn’t want to give up. He keeps Linda’s children close, still hoping that their mother will return for them. He even travels North himself to find her - his obsession with the rebellious young slave only grew after her escape. For seven years he tries again and again. Finally, Dr. Flint surrenders and does exactly what Linda expects of him: he tries to sell her children and her brother William - who is also his possession - to the worst place ever. But Linda isn’t the one who cares about William, Benny and Ellen - the slave trader who comes to buy all the three is a representative of Mr. Sands (the man was timely warned by Aunt Martha and her friends. These elderly women indeed built a whole spy network to aid poor Linda). Mr. Sands promises Linda to free their children one day, but now he sends them to live in Linda’s granny’s home - exactly where she hides. Now Linda has at least one joy in her life - even living in the attic, without the ability to stand straight or make extra noise, she is now able to see her kids.
But soon another event crushes her dreams. Mr. Sands marries and goes to Washington D.C. to become a congressman. Soon he takes Ellen to look after his newborn daughter. Linda, frightened by the similarity of Ellen’s fate and her own - two young girls taken away to serve a capricious baby. She understands that Mr. Sands will never recognize his children fathered with an underage slave, it is too bad for his reputation as a married congressman. To make things worse, she receives a letter saying that William escaped and fled to the North from his master. Linda is afraid that Mr. Sands will sell Ellen and Benny to cover his loss and again she decides it is time to act. After seven years of voluntary incarceration she exits the attic. Aunt Martha uses all her connections to arrange for Linda a boat to escape to New York secretly from Dr. Flint. Before escaping Linda finally meets her son in person and talks to him - just to discover that he knew about her hiding place all along and willingly lied to anyone who tried to find his mom that he didn’t know where she was.
In New York Linda, terrified by the sheer size of the city and quantity of people there, meets a woman named Mrs. Bruce. She listens to Linda’s story with great compassion and offers her a job of a nursemaid in her family. Linda gladly agrees. Now she has a steady ground to start searching for her daughter - she knows that Ellen is somewhere in the city at the moment. Soon she manages to find the girl and discovers that Ellen - now nine-year-old - is still a slave who now belongs to the cousin of Mr. Sands named Mr. Hobbs. Linda is furious that Mr. Sands lied to her about granting freedom to her children. Devastated by this discovery, she writes to Dr. Flint asking how much he wants for her and her children’s freedom, but he replies that he will consider speaking about it only after he returns his property.
But not everything is as bad as it seems. William, Linda’s brother, arrives to New York as a sailor. Now they can support each other. Linda also has permission to see Ellen and knows that, despite the girl is still a slave, Mrs. Hobbs treats her well and even hires a doctor to examine her and help her recover after her measles.
After a few weeks everything again becomes just as bad. Lured by her letter, Dr. Flint goes to New York to find Linda. Warned by Aunt Martha’s spy network she decides to temporarily flee again. She tells Mrs. Bruce that she goes to Boston and then writes to Aunt Martha asking her to send Benny to Boston instead. Everything goes smooth and she, accompanied by William, is reunited with her son in Boston. Meanwhile, Dr. Flint fruitlessly searches for her in New York. As soon as he leaves, Linda, William and Benny return back to New York. Linda continues to work as a nurse, but she is constantly discriminated even by other black people with lighter shade of skin. At first she avoids conflicts but gradually Linda learns to stand for herself and even wins some respect.
But then Mr. Hobbs’ brother decides to write to Dr. Flint again. Now he knows that the mother of his brother’s slave girl is a fugitive and wants to return the missing property to its owner. Linda understands that she has no option than to tell the truth to Mrs. Bruce and confesses that she is an escaped slave. Despite her fears, Mrs. Bruce immediately contacts her lawyer to help Linda take Ellen and again travel to Boston where they all are considered free. In Boston Ellen finally reunites with her brother and the whole family seems to be safe at last.
After some times Linda receives solemn news that Mrs. Bruce died. Mr. Bruce asks her to accompany him and his daughter (who Linda nursed before) in their travel to London. Linda agrees. London fascinates her, because there she, for the first time in her life, feels equal to the white people. But when she returns home after a long voyage, she discovers that Benny, now a teenager, went sailing as a whaler after being mocked as “colored”. Linda blames herself for leaving her kids alone without her support. Soon she receives the letter from the daughter of Dr. Flint, Emily Flint. Emily writes that she knows about Linda’s travels and watches her. She informs Linda that she belongs to her and always belonged and offers her to willingly return to her new home in Virginia. Linda is frightened, but persuades herself that she’s safe in Boston.
Linda lives in Boston for two years. Benny is still travelling. Ellen goes to the boarding school. Linda herself works as a seamstress and has a decent life, but suddenly she receives a letter from William who asks her to help him establish an abolitionist movement in the city. Linda agrees and becomes a member of a famous Underground Railroad for a year.
Soon she loses her work. William finds Benny and they both sail away to establish their business. Ellen does well in her boarding school. Feeling lonely, Linda writes to Mr. Bruce and discovers that he remarried and will be glad to see her again as a nurse for his new child. Linda hesitates, because she knows about the Fugitive Slaves Law that puts her in danger in New York as exactly the fugitive slave. But after thinking for a while she agrees to return.
Dr. Flint discovers this almost immediately and again goes for her. He is very old but his obsession with Linda is as strong as at the time she was twelve. Linda even has to flee for a while once more until he stops his pursuit again. After several months she receives another letter - now from her granny, with relieving news that Dr. Flint died. But Emily - his daughter, now married but not less determined to return Linda - continues the search. Indeed, Emily herself soon arrives to New York and new Mrs. Bruce (who is as kind as previous one) sends her away with her own child to protect her. Before this, Mrs. Bruce offers Linda to buy her from Emily, but the woman harshly refuses - she doesn’t want to be considered a property that can be bought and sold.
But when she returns home she discovers that Mrs. Bruce bought her anyway, granting her freedom soon after. Despite Linda is furious that she again was considered a thing, she is still grateful to Mrs. Bruce, understanding that she had the best intention. When Linda starts writing her book, she still works for the Bruces, now as a free woman. She sends the letter to her grandmother to tell her about her newly acquired freedom and Aunt Martha rejoices - but soon the old woman who did so much to free her family dies peacefully of old age. Finishing the book Linda states that despite all bitterness and cruelty in her life she will be forever warmed by the memories about people who helped her so much.
The book closes with the words of Amy Post, an abolitionist that worked with Linda in Boston and George W. Lowther, another black writer, who also writes books about the horrors of slavery. It is understandable, because the events that happened with Linda may seem so strange for free white people that they won’t believe it - but they still say that for most black people hiding for years, being sold and bought, parted with children and sexually abused since pre-puberty is a harsh reality.