Alias Grace opens with a short chapter written from the first-person point of view of the novel’s protagonist, Grace Marks. The year is 1851. Grace will soon turn twenty-four years old, and she has been in prison for nearly eight years. Walking in formation with other prisoners along a path, she looks down and sees dark red peonies growing out of the gravel. The peonies remind Grace of the white peonies that grew in a man named Mr. Kinnear’s garden, and she recalls a woman named Nancy cutting them and placing them in a flat basket. Since it’s April, Grace knows peonies shouldn’t be blossoming now. She touches one of the flowers and realizes it’s made of cloth.
Looking up, Grace sees Nancy on her knees. Blood runs down her face and she holds out her hands as if to beg for mercy. Nancy is wearing a pair of gold earrings that Grace used to envy, but Grace thinks to herself that Nancy can keep the earrings because, unlike last time, Grace will run for help. Also unlike last time, Mr. Kinnear will come home and retire safely to the parlor while James McDermott takes his horse to the stable. As Grace approaches Nancy, Nancy’s image scatters into dark red cloth petals. Suddenly, it’s dark, and a man with a candle blocks Grace’s way to the stairs. She feels trapped and knows she will never get out.
At the end of this chapter, Grace explains that the above account is what she told someone named Dr. Jordan when she came to “that part of the story.”
Part II consists of a 34-stanza ballad that recounts the murders of Mr. Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, as well as the trials of Mr. Kinnear’s serving maid, Grace Marks, and his stable hand, James McDermott.
According to the ballad, Mr. Kinnear was in love with Nancy and lavished her with expensive gifts. Meanwhile, Grace loved Mr. Kinnear, and McDermott fancied Grace.
Grace promised to become McDermott’s lover in exchange for helping her kill Nancy. McDermott struck Nancy on the head with an axe and dragged her to the cellar, where he and Grace strangled her with a kerchief. McDermott wanted to kill Mr. Kinnear as well. Grace protested since she only wanted Nancy dead so she could have Mr. Kinnear for herself. But McDermott, who insisted on holding Grace to her earlier promise, shot Mr. Kinnear through the heart.