Summary of Plot:
The Price of a Child is a fictionalized account of a young woman, traveling with her slave owner and two of her three children, who takes the bold step of declaring her freedom and beginning a new life as a free woman. Her only regret is that her youngest child, Bennie, is with her owner's wife in Virginia and may be sold off as a result of her actions. Philadelphia in 1855 is the main setting for this story.
Chapter One: Crazy Hope
Ginnie Pryor and her two children have traveled to Philadelphia with Jackson Pryor, who has been named ambassador to Nicaragua. Jackson wants Ginnie to be his servant and sexual partner and, to keep her under his control while they are away, has allowed her to bring only two of her three children on this trip. He leaves Ginnie and the children at their Philadelphia hotel while he goes for dinner. Ginnie recalls people and events from her past, including a failed attempt at escape when she was pregnant with her first child. She attempts to get help in escaping from slavery by appealing to a chambermaid at the hotel. A young man, Nig-Nag, overhears her words and gets a message to a friend who can facilitate her escape.
Chapter Two: Stand
Nig-Nag continues to play messenger, alerting a number of Vigilance Committee members to Ginnie's plight. Pennsylvania law allows Ginnie to take her children and walk away to freedom. William Still and Passmore Williamson approach Ginnie on the deck of the ferry bound for New Jersey and inform her that she can accept freedom by standing and leaving her owner. Despite Jackson's protests that Ginnie belongs to him and will lose her youngest child if she leaves, Ginnie stands and walks away with her two children, assisted by five African American porters. Despite Jackson's attempts to stop them, Ginnie and her children ride off in a carriage driven by Tyree Quick and begin to breathe freedom.
Chapter Three: The Quick and the Dead
Tyree and his uncle, Jeremiah, drive Ginnie to the Olive Cemetery, where the members of the Quick family are picnicking and honoring their deceased ancestors. During the ride, Tyree and Jeremiah discuss family business and history while Ginnie fears for the safety of her youngest child, Bennie. At the cemetery, she is introduced to the members of the Quick family, and Reverend Ephraim Johns reads from the Bible to commemorate Ginnie's escape from slavery.
Chapter Four: Mercy
Ginnie begins to form impressions of the Quicks as a powerful family fully capable of keeping her safe. As she begins to differentiate the assorted members, she is drawn to Harriet, a young schoolteacher who - like her twin brother, Tyree - is active in the abolitionist movement. Harriet helps convince Ginnie to choose a new name to represent her new life. She initially selects the name, Mercy Gray, based on a dream of a gray cat and the mercy so many had recently shown her.
Chapter Five: Family
Ginnie is convinced to take the name of Mercer as more suited to her new stature and assumes the name of Mercer Gray. Discussions and thoughts of childbirth begin the chapter. Mercer is temporarily housed with Aunt Bea and suffers the discomfort of numerous flea bites. Her son, Mattie, develops a terrible fever, causing a change in plans. Although it is not considered safe for them to remain in Philadelphia because of reprisals from Jackson Pryor, Mattie's ill health necessitates that Mercer and her children stay at Bea's home, in the shed. Harriet visits them and brings lessons for the children. She invites Mercer to attend a lecture on anatomy that she is presenting at her parents' home. Mercer also attends a service with the Quicks at the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. As was feared, Pryor files charges, and Still and the porters are arrested for assault and battery while Williamson is imprisoned for contempt of court because he failed to produce Mercer when ordered to do so.
Chapter Six: Happy Few
The Quicks discuss the need to relocate Mercer for safety's sake. They realize that if Mercer and her children are separated they will be harder to trace. Tyree convinces his Aunt Zilpha, who lives in West Chester, to let Mercer come and stay with her while the children remain in Philadelphia. Tyree and Blanche continually argue, reinforcing the impression that theirs is not a happy marriage. He makes advances to Mercer, but they stop at a kiss. He tries to bury his attraction to Mercer by having sex with his wife. Blanche is revealed as very troubled and guilt ridden over a prior abortion. Zilpha and Mercer set off for West Chester, where Mercer begins to experience a whole new way of life.
Chapter Seven: Make Your Mark
At a request from Harriet, Mercer visits Eliza Ruffin, president of the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society and Passmore Williamson's cousin. Eliza asks Mercer to sign an affidavit that she left Jackson Pryor of her own free will, in hopes that the case against Passmore will then be dismissed. Mercer realizes this also may entail her appearance in court, which could threaten her freedom, but she agrees to help. In addition, Mercer attends a Ladies Anti-Slavery meeting during which she is asked to detail her experiences as a slave and reveal her scars while the members drink tea and eat cake. Mrs. Eugenia Pitts escorts Mercer to New York, which from Mercer's vantage point appears to have a large share of filth and poverty. She is brought to Mr. Henry's law office and for this occasion reverts to her slave name, Virginia Pryor, as she details the events of her escape.
Chapter Eight: Hard Swearing
After the filing of the affidavit, Mercer remains in New York at a boarding house. She hears the famous speaker and ex-slave, William Wells Brown, at an abolitionist event and is greatly inspired by his talk. Tyree comes for a visit and brings her news from Philadelphia. He takes her on her first visit to a restaurant and promises to attend the trial for Williamson, Still, and the five porters. Despite the presentation of the affidavit, Williamson is not released from prison. Mercer agrees to appear at his trial. She and Eliza Ruffin travel to the District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Mercer is taken to the court under the protection of female Quakers. Tryee, Harriet, Aunt Bea, and Jeremiah are present in the courtroom to support Mercer. After testimony from two other supportive witnesses, Mercer is sworn in as Virginia Pryor and relates the events of her escape. Her testimony is well received. Although Judge Wells is sympathetic to Southern interests, he must abide by Pennsylvania law. After greeting Nig-Nag outdoors, and under a safe escort, Mercer leaves the court and is driven to Mary Sterling's home for safekeeping. Pryor is approached by a slave catcher named Keller and pays him to punish one of the men who helped Mercer escape.
Chapter Nine: Waiting
Mercer is reunited with Mattie, Etta, and the Quicks. She urges her children to keep a written record of their lives. Prudence Randall approaches Mercer about making a lecture tour about her experiences through New England. Because of her uncertain status in the recent as yet undecided court case, Mercer delays her decision. She moves from Aunt Bea's shed to Harriet's rooms in Mrs. Becker's house. By day, she works for the Quicks; by night, Harriet helps her further her education.
Chapter Ten: Strong as Death
A judgement is reached and Mercer and her children are free. All six men are acquitted of rioting and it is agreed that no abduction has taken place. The Quicks hold a celebration dinner and Nig-Nag is an invited guest. Nig-Nag is given some reward money and celebrates by getting drunk. This allows Keller to have his two hirelings beat up Nig-Nag and kidnap Jack and Bo-Bo for sale as slaves, as a message to those who helped Mercer and other slaves attain freedom. Nig-Nag tries to get help for his two friends but is too late. He is so badly beaten that he dies in Ephraim's church and is buried in the public cemetery for paupers. Nig-Nag's death helps Mercer decide to do the speaking tour. Tyree and Harriet help her with her studies, and Tyree takes her to hear a noted speaker for the Negro Emigrationist Society, Wayland Silver. Mercer's eyes are opened to the control many white abolitionists want to exert over African Americans' lives and opportunities.
Chapter Eleven: Her Father's Tooth
Mercer begins her talks in a Massachusetts church. At first she is nervous and afraid of offending the audience with the real truths about the effects of slavery on all people. Once she finds that she is getting her message across, she feels a sense of peace and purpose.
Chapter Twelve: Fire and Sword
Manny Quick's health and mental state continue to deteriorate. Tyree feels an obligation to his family, but he also wants to find a way to have a life with Mercer. Tryee speaks with his father and attempts to find out about the family's financial state. His father reveals that Roland, Tyree's deceased brother, took the family's money and that Manny's sister, Aunt Bea, knows something about it. Tyree next tries to speak to Aunt Bea, who is drunk on gin and not much help either. Bea actually has all of Roland's money for his trip to Africa stuffed in a hole in her mattress. Tyree writes to Mercer, who is still on tour, to tell her his concerns about her safety at some of her speaking locations in upstate Pennsylvania. Tyree comes to her speaking engagement near Harrisburg and they are forced to hide and flee when the building, Justice Hall, is attacked and burned.
Chapter Thirteen: The Land of the Living
Tyree and Mercer drive to Zilpha's home in West Chester, which is closed up while Zilpha helps to nurse her brother, Manny. They have a romantic reunion and talk about their future together in Canada. Tyree returns home to find his father near death. He again speaks to his father about the family's financial condition, and again his brother Roland's name comes up. Tyree goes to check on Bea, who is again drunk and who knocks over an oil lamp. He is cleaning the urine she has poured on the bricks outside the house when a fire starts inside her room. He rushes to rescue Bea, who tells him about the money in her bed. After saving the house, Tyree finds only $500 recoverable from the hidden stash. He sadly realizes that he cannot leave his family to fend for themselves with that small amount of cash. Manny dies and the family prepares for the funeral. Mercer and her two children leave to start a new life, taking the same boat they were to have taken with Pryor.