Nightjohn takes place in the 1860s American South. It tells the story of a young slave girl named Sarny who meets Nightjohn, a slave that can read. Nightjohn teaches Sarny and other slaves to read.
In 1997 a companion novel, Sarny, was released. It begins in 1930 with a 94 year old Sarny telling her past. After the events of The American Civil War, Sarny leaves the plantation in search of her two children, Delie and Tyler, who were taken from her prior to slavery being abolished. She sets off to New Orleans to reunite with her kids and start a new life as a free woman. Along the way Sarny and her friend Lucy meet a wealthy woman called Laura Harris that they quickly befriend. "Miss Laura", as she's called, hires them and helps them on their journey.
These books provide example of:
- Agonizing Stomach Wound: Sarny mentions how soldiers during the American Civil War left soldiers (many only teenagers) to die if they were wounded in the stomach. It often took a day or more for the soldiers to die.
- Child Soldiers: Sarny comes across several scared teenage soldiers crying for their mothers or girlfriends. Many are mortally wounded in the war.
- Dumb Struck: Sarny finds a traumatized little boy whose family was murdered after the war. The boy won't speak or even mention his name, so Sarny nicknames him "Tyler Two".
- Live-Action Adaptation: A Made-for-TV Movie was made of Nightjohn.
- Hiding Your Heritage: Miss Laura is multiracial and has kinky hair, but she hides her ethnicity and passes for completely white. Sarny considers her black but doesn't reveal the secret to anyone.
- Mercy Kill: Horses who were left mortally injured during battle were usually mercy killed, but the human soldiers were left for dead if they received shots to the abdomen.
- Older Than They Look: Miss Laura dies of heart failure at 51 but she looks 38, and even that's pushing it to Sarny.
- Only Known by Their Nickname: Sarny names a boy she rescues "Tyler Two" after her own son, Tyler.
- Outliving One's Offspring: Sarny outlived both of her children.
- Sole Survivor: Tyler Two's parents and presumably his grandfather were all murdered.
- White Man's Burden: Subverted with Miss Laura, a rich white-looking woman who helps former slaves. Unbeknownst to others, she's actually a white passing multiracial woman.