In this novel, the author provides a realistic portrait of race and class relations in New Orleans immediately following the Louisiana Purchase (1803). It chronicles the adventures and romances of various members of the Grandissime family, black, white, mixed race, rich and poor alike. The story begins when Honore Grandissime, the scion of the white branch of this powerful New Orleans clan, takes in Joseph Frowenfeld, a young man from Philadelphia whose entire family has died from yellow fever. Honore's conversations with Joseph about the New Orleans caste system shed light on the dilemmas at the center of the novel. Honore finds himself caught between an idealistic Joseph, who advocates sweeping social reforms that would end slavery but essentially erase Creole culture, and his prideful uncle Agricola Fusilier, who ostensibly holds onto a racist past in order to preserve the Grandissime way of life, one built on the foundations of slavery. Honore wants to establish a business partnership with his quadroon half brother (also called Honore) and do right by Aurora Nancanou, who was widowed and rendered destitute when Agricola murdered her husband over a gambling dispute. Yet his decisions regarding this tarnished family history are further complicated by his secret love for Aurora. The story of Bras Coupe, retold several times, connects the novel's divergent strands and is suggestive of Honore's struggle against his past and a vibrant New Orleans society that remains tainted by slavery's atrocities. Bras Coupe, an enslaved African prince on a Spanish Creole plantation, is engaged to Palmyre, Aurora's maid. Inspired by the indignity of his plight, Bras Coupe attacks his white overseer, and is soon viciously pursued by a mob of Creole aristocrats, among them Agricola, through the New Orleans swamps. Honore tries to prevent the African prince's punishment but to no avail. Upon his capture, Bras Coupe issues a curse on both his master and his plantation. He is summarily beaten to death, though only after his ears are cut off and his hamstrings slashed. Bras Coupe, literally meaning "arm cut off" in French, personifies the cruelty of slavery and the degeneracy that lies at the heart of a so called genteel southern society. The author's devotion to Creole society, rendered in romantic terms throughout the novel, is counterbalanced by the haunting presence of Bras Coupe's fate, which illustrates that a world of such charm and privilege comes at great human cost.