Hetty Handful Grimké. The novel begins with Handful’s “Mauma” (Charlotte), a slave, telling Handful (the narrator) that in Africa people used to be able to fly, but they lost their wings when they came to America. Handful knows this isn’t true, but loves the story anyway. It is only when she grows older, she says, that she understands what her mother meant by telling her that she had wings.
Kidd starts the novel with an image of freedom, in the wings that the slaves once had. The legend, besides relating to the novel’s title, sets up Charlotte’s focus on escaping slavery—that is, getting her wings back. Charlotte passes this legacy of resisting slavery to her daughter, another slave who will eventually have wings.
Handful is often in trouble with Missus, the mother of the Grimké family (the white masters of Handful and her mother), because she has a bit of a sassy mouth. Thought the Grimkés call her “Hetty,” her true name Handful comes from her mother because she was so small at birth that she only filled one handful. Handful’s mother Charlotte is the seamstress for the Grimkés, and desperately wants to work outside the house for actual pay – something that Missus won’t allow.
Handful’s true name has two meanings: both Handful’s small physical size, but also that she is a handful – hard for the Grimkés to handle or control. The Grimkés are clearly concerned with maintaining power over their slaves, refusing to let Charlotte get paid for her work so that Charlotte will remain dependent. Yet the fact that the Grimkés do not know about Handful’s true name shows that the Grimkés may not have as much control as they think they do.
Instead, Charlotte spends her rare spare time sewing quilts with black triangles that stand for wings. Handful helps Charlotte by finding feathers and other things in the yard to stuff the quilts, loving any chance she gets to wear her small thimble, which her mother gave her, when she helps sew.
Charlotte’s black triangles form wings, showing Charlotte’s desire for flight and freedom. Handful is very close to her mother, with a strong bond that is built on sewing. Kidd sets up numerous similarities between Handful and Charlotte.
When Handful works in the yard, she has to be as quiet as possible in order to avoid offending Missus. Noise is on the list of slave sins, under stealing, disobedience, and laziness. Handful gleefully indulges each of these sins whenever she gets a chance. Handful takes a few moments for herself to go watch the sea. But her time is interrupted when Missus calls for “Hetty.” Handful goes inside, expecting a beating for some perceived mistake.
Handful clearly fears Missus, acknowledging Missus’ rules and preparing for a beating when Missus calls her. Yet Handful still risks disobedience, even though she knows the possible consequences. Handful’s life is a balancing act of rebelling for her mental sanity and keeping the rules for her physical safety.
Sarah Grimké. Sarah, now narrating, turns eleven and is given her own room for the first time. She is somewhat nervous to leave the nursery, though she is happy to get her own space in a family of ten children. Sarah is the lone bright redhead of the children, and Father’s favorite, according to everyone. Sarah idolizes her father, a judge in the South Carolina court and a member of the elite South Carolina planter class. Sarah is more wary of her mother, a woman who rules the house, slaves, and children with a strict hand.
Sarah is the privileged daughter of a slave-owning family, though she does not feel fully comfortable with her family. Different in both looks and personality, Sarah finds comfort with her father, though she should be more attached to her mother according to the social norms of her time and status. Especially in contrast to the close bond between Charlotte and Handful, Sarah’s relationship with her own mother is an unhealthy mix of fear and judgment.
Sarah’s earliest memory is of her brother Thomas teaching her to read simple words out in the yard, until the afternoon was interrupted by the whipping of a slave named Rosetta. Sarah is so distraught that she runs away all the way to the ship’s wharf. Though Sarah is unhurt, she is left with a stutter that continues to afflict her now. Yet on her eleventh birthday, the stutter has been away for a couple months and Sarah dares to hope she is cured.
This memory reveals Sarah’s two passions throughout her life: academic study and abolition. These desires are strange for a white Southern woman who traditionally should only be concerned with finding a husband and raising a family. Society judges Sarah for these interests, silencing her metaphorically just as Sarah’s stutter silences her literally.
Handful. Aunt-Sister, the cook, takes Handful into the kitchen as the house prepares for Sarah’s eleventh birthday party. Missus sweeps in and ties a lavender ribbon around Handful’s neck. Handful worries that she is going to be sold, but Missus leads a scared Handful into the drawing room and presents Handful to Sarah as a present.
Missus treats Handful like an object, dressing her as she likes. The ribbon around Handful’s neck marks her as an inanimate “present” rather than a person. As a slave, Handful clearly has no rights of her own.
Sarah stammers that she can’t accept Handful, making Missus so angry that she screams. Handful is so scared that she accidently pees on the drawing room rug. Handful expects a slap, wondering if she should fake an epileptic fit the way Rosetta does to avoid punishment, but Aunt-Sister just takes Handful back to the kitchen.
Sarah wants to reject slavery, but is not yet strong enough or courageous enough to voice her opinions. Handful, for her part, is in a much worse and more frightening situation. Here, physical safety must take precedence over mental pride.
Handful’s Mauma comforts Handful as best she can, telling Handful the story of how their ancestors had wings. The next morning, Mauma gives Handful a quilt and tells Handful that she must now sleep outside Sarah’s door. Mauma warns Handful never to leave her quilt for any reason except Sarah’s bell at night, given how suspicious the Grimkés are of their house slaves.
Though the book opened with the legend of wings, it takes on more significance here. Handful’s humanity has been stripped down, as she was just given as a gift to another person. Charlotte reminds Handful that she will one day have freedom, if she can keep herself safe for now.
Sarah. Sarah wants to give Hetty back to Mother, but Mother just tells Sarah to make peace with their way of life. Sarah feels incredible pity for Hetty, remembering the girl’s small size and scared face at the party. Sarah puts those thoughts aside to write apologies to all the guests for ruining the party by refusing her present. Though Sarah is not truly sorry, she writes the letters to try and remain in the good graces of society – already seeing how her unfeminine intellect and ambition marks her as an outcast in Charleston’s upper class.
Sarah vaguely wants to fight against slavery, but her youth and gender means she is not taken seriously by her family. Sarah tries to fit in with society as best she can on the issue of slavery, both because her life of general comfort depends on it and for fear that her other atypical characteristics threaten her tenuous grasp on this privilege. Kidd already suggests that Sarah will one day have to reject society completely.
Looking out her window to the slave quarters, Sarah gets an idea. She sneaks out of her bedroom and goes into Father’s library to get a piece of Father’s legal paper. The library reminds Sarah of how much she wishes she could have a real education, instead of the female education that Madame Ruffin gives her each day. On the legal paper, Sarah writes a certificate of freedom for Hetty. Sarah leaves the certificate on Father’s desk and goes to sleep dreaming of Hetty’s happiness and Father’s pride.
Kidd reflects on the unequal education between men and women as Sarah wishes that the law was an acceptable choice for a woman. Though Sarah is not supposed to appreciate law or education, she clearly has an intellectual mind that should not be stifled. Writing is a source of power for Sarah. Sarah feels that she can write Hetty free even if she is not allowed to speak out loud against slavery.
Sarah wakes the next morning with a burst of self-knowledge: she is going to become the first female jurist. Sarah cuts a beautiful silver fleur-de-lis patterned button off one of her dresses and puts the button in small box as a symbol of her commitment to this destiny, hoping that God will grant her this future. Yet Sarah’s spirits fall when she leaves her room and sees Hetty’s freedom certificate torn in two on the floor.
Sarah has chosen a life path for herself that will be difficult – even through her euphoria Sarah recognizes that there will be incredible opposition to a female in this position. Sarah will use the button to keep her commitment strong throughout the trials that await her. Opposition begins immediately as Sarah sees her first attempt at legal action has been rejected.
Handful. Handful is uncertain on her first day as Sarah’s maid, and becomes convinced that Sarah hates her. Handful tries to start a fire in Sarah’s fireplace but only succeeds in smoking out the house. Everyone runs out of the house, convinced it is on fire. Even neighbors come to try to ensure that the blaze won’t spread.
Sarah’s reluctance at having a slave at all reads to Handful as a hatred of Handful in particular. Already, there is a complicated dynamic between the two girls who are forced into close daily proximity. Handful’s nerves at this tense relationship contribute to her mistakes, including the fire.
When Sarah finally manages to explain that there is no fire, Missus rages and strikes Handful with her cane. Handful falls to the ground. Missus raises her hand to slap Handful, but Handful has a moment of clarity outside of all the commotion in the yard. Handful hears a voice telling her not to stay down, but to get up and look Missus in the face. Handful does, and Missus drops her arm and backs away. The rest of the day is spent airing out the linens as everyone but Sarah looks at Handful with disgust.
Sarah’s stammer again makes it hard for her to stand up for Handful. Handful starts to see that she must demand respect for herself if she is ever going to make her masters accept her fundamental rights as a person. When Handful is clear about her own self-worth, Missus cannot help but treat Handful more like a human being. Yet the institution of slavery means that Missus still has total power over Handful, creating more work for all the slaves.
Sarah. Sarah goes down to lunch after four days of taking meals in her room to protest owning Hetty. Mother asks cuttingly if Sarah found the ripped certificate of freedom. Sarah thinks of appealing to Father again, but gives up. She keeps her silver button as a reminder of what she will do some day.
Sarah’s first protest of slavery is completely ineffective. Her mother is seemingly her biggest antagonist in terms of fighting for abolition. Still, Sarah is not yet going to give up, as she keeps the symbolic silver button.
Handful. Handful is still a terrible maid, but she enjoys the small freedoms she can sneak in the house, like staring from the window at the boats in the harbor. The blue water gives Handful a spiritual feeling and she sings verses to it at every chance. Handful misses sleeping and sewing with her mother and often wanders off to sleep with Charlotte in the slaves’ quarters, though Charlotte warns her that this will cause trouble.
Kidd shows the distinctions of urban slavery as opposed to plantation slavery. Handful has the chance to see what freedom might look like because she lives surrounded by free white people, which is both a blessing and a curse. Looking at the ocean nourishes Handful’s soul, but also reminds her of her life in slavery. As a slave, Handful cannot even choose to sleep with her mother – much less go to the harbor when she wishes.
Sarah. Four months after Sarah is given Handful, Handful does not come in to Sarah’s room in the morning. Sarah goes into the yard to look for “Hetty” and watches the slaves do their morning work. Sarah sees Charlotte gathering feathers and goes over to ask where Hetty is.
It is not clear whether Sarah looks for Handful out of concern for Handful herself, or concern that Handful is not doing her job. While Sarah may not have wanted Handful in the first place, Sarah quickly slips into her position of privilege and gets in the habit of using Handful as a maid.
Before Sarah can stammer any words out, Charlotte shows Sarah a baby owl that Charlotte has been caring for. Sarah tells Charlotte that she tried to free Hetty but was not allowed. Charlotte tells Sarah that she just has to make it up to Hetty in the future. Sarah swears that she will free Hetty one day and goes back to her room. Hetty comes in ten minutes later, and Sarah reads aloud to her from The Adventures of Telemachus.
Charlotte’s baby owl is another example of wings in the novel. As a baby, the owl needs help and nourishment to fly someday—just as Handful will probably need Sarah’s help to ever reach freedom. This promise almost immediately affects Sarah’s behavior. By reading to Handful, Sarah acknowledges Handful’s intelligence and humanity—a subversive act in the culture of slavery. Sarah’s book choice of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus who traveled with the goddess of wisdom in disguise, suggests that Handful will soon be on an educational journey of her own.
Sarah thinks obsessively about keeping her promise to free Hetty, and dreads seeing Charlotte again at her fitting for a new Easter dress. Charlotte asks if Sarah is going to keep her promise, but Sarah pretends that her stammer is too bad for her to give any answer.
Sarah is not yet ready to vocally support freedom for slaves. She hides behind her stammer, keeping herself silent and refusing to truly risk her privilege and power to help the slaves.
Handful. The Grimké ladies go to White Point to enjoy the new spring weather, and the slaves at home get ready to give the house a thorough scrubbing. Handful cleans the majority of Sarah’s room, then takes a break and starts looking through Sarah’s things. She is enchanted with Sarah’s books and writing instruments, as well as Sarah’s fine dresses. In the back of Sarah’s wardrobe, Handful finds a box with a silver button inside. Glancing around to make sure no other slaves see her, Handful slips a spool of red thread into her pocket.
Again, the Grimkés take advantage of their slaves to feed their own privilege. As they play, the slaves work. Handful regards Sarah’s fine things with jealousy, giving the silver button particular attention even though she doesn’t know the significance the button has for Sarah. Handful decides to take something for herself, choosing red thread as a reflection of her revolutionary spirit.
The Saturday before Easter, all the slaves are gathered in the dining room so that Tomfry, the butler, can investigate a recent theft. A bolt of green silk is gone, finery that Handful cannot even imagine. The slaves are all terrified of being sent to the Work House, a place of horrific punishments in town. Missus promises to be forgiving if the cloth is returned, but Handful is not so sure.
Theft, which was Missus’ most important slave sin, is clearly a big deal. The silk, which is green—the color of jealousy—represents the disparity between the slaves and their masters. Handful trusts nothing that Missus says, always ready for punishment.
Handful sneaks to her mother’s room the night after the cloth is stolen. Charlotte is angry and marches Handful back to the house. Master Grimké catches Charlotte in the house at night, and demands an explanation. Handful, hiding on the stairs, prays for her mother to think of some lie, but Missus comes out of her room before Charlotte can speak. Missus accuses Charlotte of stealing the cloth (because she is returning to the scene of the crime) and orders her maid Cindie and Aunt-Sister to search Charlotte’s room.
Handful feels guilty for getting her mother caught, but still wants her mother to lie so that she herself won’t get in trouble for leaving her quilt. Missus forces other slaves to do her dirty work, sending Cindie and Aunt-sister to search Charlotte’s room instead of doing it herself. Rather than letting the slaves band together in solidarity against their poor treatment, Missus continually pits them against each other.
Handful follows behind the search group, muttering curses no ten-year-old should know and gathering her courage to tell Missus that this was all her fault. Yet when Handful gets to her mother’s room, she sees the bolt of green silk on top of Charlotte’s quilt frame.
Handful has had to mature before her time, a loss of childhood that is yet another casualty of slavery. Handful is surprised to find that her mother was actually the thief, expecting another unfair accusation.
Handful stares enchanted at the beautiful silk while Missus lectures Charlotte about her theft. Missus tells Charlotte that the punishment will be at the house but delayed until after Easter, as Missus is compassionate. Missus leaves and Handful stays with her mother sobbing. Charlotte tells Handful that she isn’t mad at her, just mad she got caught. Handful realizes her mother doesn’t even want the cloth, she just had to take it to let out some of the pent up energy of living as a slave.
The silk captivates both Handful and Charlotte, offering a touch of beauty to an otherwise harsh life. Even Missus’ so-called compassion is another example of mistreatment. Though Easter is a holiday centered on forgiving sins, Missus refuses to forgive Charlotte or show any kind of real “Christian” spirit at all. The punishment is inevitable, though delayed for Missus’ own selfish enjoyment of the holiday.
Sarah. On Easter, the Grimkés go to the Episcopal Church. Sarah stammers to Mother that she is looking forward to giving her first lesson at the “Colored Sunday School.” Mary Jr., Sarah’s older sister, mocks Sarah’s stutter but Sarah tries to ignore the teasing. Sarah watches the slaves in the street enjoying the time to chat as they walk to church. Even Snow, the Grimké’s carriage driver, has taken advantage of the Grimke’s time at church to joy ride in the carriage.
Sarah again receives no support within her family, as her sister mocks her stutter and her mother ignores her interest in teaching. The Easter holiday gives the slaves a chance to enjoy themselves, whereas the Grimké family are supposed to piously attend church and better themselves. Though some white citizens take this as evidence that slaves are not properly religious, Kidd suggests that the slaves simply do not respect the Anglican religion that is used to justify their enslavement.
The Grimkés get to church and make their way to their pew in the front, as befits their status in Charleston. Sarah looks up to the slave balcony, where the slaves are causing a hubbub. A shoe drops on a lady, knocking her unconscious, and Sarah hears one of the guards beat a slave. Reverend Hall begins his sermon, admonishing the slaves to be obedient to their masters. Sarah is unsure what to think, but a glance at her father’s blank face clarifies nothing.
The Grimkés church attendance is an important part of their social life, but not necessarily a pure act of faith. The Anglican religion in general takes on a more social than religious aspect in Charleston. The Reverend uses sermons not to feed his congregation’s spiritual needs, but to keep the slaves in line. Sarah is upset by this, but has no way of knowing if church is truly supposed to be like this, or if her particular church is failing her spiritual needs.
Sarah goes to a small classroom to give the Sunday School lesson, surprised to find the kids playing in complete anarchy. Her sister Mary Jr. tells Sarah to just let them play, but Sarah gathers the children and begins to teach them the alphabet so that they have a chance of reading the Bible for themselves. The kids joyously join the song and Sarah happily conducts, not noticing Reverend Hall at the door. Reverend Hall asks Sarah what she thinks she is doing, as teaching slaves to read is against the law. Sarah finds this shameful, and stares Reverend Hall in the face in an echo of Hetty’s defiance of Mother.
Sarah truly wants to help the black children, imagining the enrichment that the children would get from reading the Bible. Though teaching Christianity is ostensibly the goal of a Sunday School, the Reverend’s anger makes it clear that the school is meant to teach obedience—or only Christianity for white people. Sarah has learned from Hetty how to have courage in the face of unjust punishment.
Handful. The Monday after Easter, Aunt-Sister tells Charlotte that her punishment will be to have one leg tied up for an hour. Tomfry reluctantly ties Charlotte up as Missus watches from the window and the slaves huddle together in the yard. Handful can’t bring herself to look away. Charlotte falls, splitting the skin on her head, then gets up. Handful prays that her mother won’t fall again. Charlotte makes it through the hour without so much as a whimper and Handful thinks that maybe the “colored God” heard her pleas.
This painful scene highlights both the physical and emotional evils of slavery. Charlotte must undergo physical torture while Handful is subjected to the mental anguish of watching her mother suffer. Again, Missus keeps her own hands clean of violence, forcing other slaves to act in violent ways. Handful has so little faith in white people and their religious traditions that she imagines an entirely separate God for black people.
At the end of the hour, Tomfry and Aunt-Sister help Charlotte to her bed. Handful gives her water and tries to feed her small bites of food, but Charlotte can’t eat. Handful explains that her mother’s legs eventually recovered, but Charlotte’s spirit was never the same. That day, Charlotte truly began to hate.
While the physical traumas of slavery may heal, the mental traumas are not so easily forgotten. Charlotte, with her newly burning hate, now has a renewed commitment toward reaching freedom by whatever means necessary. The Grimkés punish their slaves to ensure obedience, but it has produced the opposite effect in Charlotte.
Sarah. Sarah spends the day after Easter writing an apology to Reverend Hall for her disastrous Sunday School lesson. There is an unease about the house, which only grows worse when Sarah meets her older brother Thomas for a lesson. Sarah normally loves these educational sessions, but she cannot concentrate today. Thomas misreads Sarah’s discomfort and thinks that Sarah has figured out that he doesn’t actually want to be a lawyer. Thomas sighs that Sarah should be the lawyer so he can become a minister. Sarah is elated, thinking she has finally found an ally within her family. She promises to do anything to help Thomas study theology, though Father will hear none of it.
Sarah is again forced to write an apology that she does not mean, another example of Mother silencing Sarah’s voice and opinions. Sarah would rather use writing for her own purposes, such as becoming a lawyer. Though Sarah feels that her life path is constrained, her brother Thomas also has little choice about his own future. The Grimkés’ social status seems to create as many problems for the Grimké children as it solves, as the privileges of their life do not outweigh the passions they must give up. But of course, none of these “problems” come even close to those faced by Handful or Charlotte.
Sarah still hasn’t seen Hetty all day, so Sarah goes to the kitchen to find her. Normally the kitchen is full of song, which Mother takes as evidence that the slaves are happy. Yet today, it is silent until the slaves begin to murmur about Charlotte’s poor state. Sarah flashes back to her memory of seeing a slave whipped and stumbles back through the house, frantically packing a basket with liniment oil, tea, and laudanum.
The slaves keep their true feelings secret from the Grimkés, another example of masters owning slaves in body but not in mind or spirit. Sarah does what she can to mitigate the effects of slavery, but has not yet been able to stop those horrors before they happen.
Mother stops Sarah in the corridor, but Sarah refuses to be stopped. Sarah pushes past her mother, ignoring the shrieks that she is forbidden to leave the house, and walks over to the slave’s quarters. Sarah tells Mother that she is going to see about Charlotte, the words coming easily to Sarah for once. Sarah knows that her stammer is gone and walks confidently over to the slave’s quarters.
Sarah has now gone against her family in order to stand up for her principles. As soon as Sarah is honest about what she thinks is right – namely better treatment of the slaves as human beings – she is able to speak free of a stutter. This suggests that Sarah’s stutter is linked to a fundamental repression of her character.
Handful. That night Charlotte begins to have shaking fits, and then finally sleeps. Handful sleeps too, with strange dreams of flying and sleeping, then wakes to her mother’s voice. Charlotte begins to tell a story about Handful’s grandmother who first came to America from Africa. When Handful’s grandmother got here, she was separated from her family and the stars fell from the sky. Grandmother made quilts using the applique of the Fon people, with black triangles for blackbird wings.
Handful is seemingly in tune with her mother’s dream of freedom, having her own dreams of flight. The imagery of falling stars also plays into the novel’s earlier flight imagery, as the stars’ descent to earth is an unnatural reversal of their usual freedom in the sky. Charlotte seems to have also drawn inspiration to strive for a return to freedom from her mother (the way Handful draws inspiration from Charlotte), as grandmother was the first one to use the black triangles as a reminder of freedom.
Handful notices Sarah hiding outside the door, listening to the story too. Charlotte goes on, telling how Grandmother worked the fields and taught Charlotte everything she knew about quilts. Charlotte became the family’s seamstress and Grandmother started up a “spirit tree,” wrapping a tree with thread to give their souls a safe place to live. Grandmother told Charlotte to put leaves and twigs from the tree in a pouch at her neck so that she would always have a piece of her soul with her if she ever left this place.
Quilting gives Charlotte and Handful a way to express themselves and take control of their own stories. The spirit tree too offers a space where slaves can keep their true souls safe from the harmful effects of slavery. No matter what happens to their bodies, Handful and Charlotte’s souls will never be enslaved. Sarah overhears this conversation, presumably influencing her view of slaves as well.
Grandmother died when Charlotte was sixteen, and Charlotte was sold to Master Grimké. In the Grimké plantation house, Charlotte met Shanney and married him. Missus brought Charlotte to the Charleston house, refusing to bring Shanney too, but Charlotte was already pregnant with Handful. Shanney died before Handful was a year old. At that point, Charlotte ends her story and goes back to sleep.
Another evil of slavery lies in the separation of families. Charlotte and Shanney’s marriage is not legally official and the two can be easily taken away from each other. Due to slavery, Shanney never met his daughter and Handful never met her father.
The next day, Handful tells Sarah that they appreciated her basket. Sarah puts her book down and hugs Handful. Handful knows that the love between her and Sarah is complicated by guilt and jealousy, but lets herself enjoy what pure love she can.
Sarah. That summer, Sarah asks Thomas to expand their private lessons, but Thomas tells her they have to stop the lessons completely. Sarah refuses to give up on her dreams of practicing law, however, and studies their father’s law books by herself. In the mornings, Sarah reads to Hetty or plays string games with her or watches the ships at harbor. The two girls keep their growing friendship a secret.
Sarah’s intelligence and perseverance are among her greatest assets. She is determined to achieve her ambitions despite all the obstacles put in front of women who want more than marriage and children. Sarah also maintains her commitment to Handful, keeping her passion for abolition in mind.
Sarah reads Don Quixote to Hetty as Hetty, bored, scratches at mosquito bites. Hetty asks Sarah to tell her about specific words, so Sarah tries to read with more expression to draw Hetty’s interest again. Sarah then notices an owl outside the window and remembers her oath to help Hetty become free. Sarah decides to start working on that goal by teaching Hetty to read.
Sarah thinks that Handful needs the mental escape of a book, significantly reading from a book about a man who rejects society to follow his own moral code, but Handful clearly searches for something more fulfilling. The owl, the same owl that Charlotte nursed, is now able to fly by itself. Seeing it reminds Sarah of her promise, and strengthens her resolve.
Sarah prepares lessons for Hetty, locking her door and screening the keyhole to avoid any discovery. Hetty picks up the skills quickly, eager to learn and asking about countless words. Hetty practices writing her words with a stick in the yard, but Sarah warns her not to let anyone see. Hetty, annoyed at Sarah’s tone, says that she always scrubs out the letters with her foot.
Sarah is ready to defy societal convention (and the law) in order to teach Handful to read, but she is aware of the consequences that could arise if anyone else found out. Handful is much braver, willing to face any fallout that comes from practicing this important new skill.
Sarah and Hetty celebrate Hetty’s 100th word with a tea on the roof of the Grimké’s house. Hetty drinks quickly from the China cup while Sarah watches the Bastille Day festivities in the distant town center. Hetty starts to gather feathers from the roof and Sarah begins to spill every secret she has ever had, including the whipping memory that caused her speech impediment. Hoping to restore a cheerful mood, Sarah also tells Hetty about her dream of becoming a jurist and the silver button that she uses to remind herself of that dream.
While Sarah is focused on the novelty of being on the roof, Handful is just as enamored with the china cup. Though the distance between the two girls still exists, the roof is a place that feels above the oppressive circumstances of the normal world (at least for Sarah). Sarah is able to be honest and vulnerable in a way that she has never been with her family, and she even shares her biggest dream with Handful without fear of judgment. Sarah needs the support and friendship of strong women like Handful if she ever wants to succeed.
Hetty admits that she has seen the button, and that she knows all about symbols like Missus’ cane and her mother’s thimble. Hetty even starts to tell stories about her family stories from Africa, their applique and their spirit tree. Hetty even admits that she stole a spool of red thread and that her real name is Handful.
Handful understands symbolism, having learned that Missus’ cane stands for Missus’ control and the thimble stands for Charlotte’s ability to sew her own stories. Though the African stories are an important part of Handful’s identity, telling Sarah her real name is the most important step in showing Sarah her trust and cementing their friendship.
Handful. Charlotte starts walking with a limp in front of Missus after the one-legged punishment, though the other slaves grumble about this ploy for sympathy. Charlotte also cleverly tricks Missus into clearing the whole cellar room for a sewing room by pretending she can no longer climb stairs. Charlotte makes the cellar room her personal haven, decorating with any pretty thing she can find. After Charlotte gets the room to her liking, she shows off her riches to the other slaves, making the grumbling even worse.
Charlotte uses physical weakness to gain time for herself. The other slaves see this as selfish, as any work that Charlotte cannot do will only worsen their burdens. Yet Charlotte continues to focus on personal freedom, carving out a space in the Grimké house that is hers alone to control.
Handful loves her mother’s new room because she can sneak to sleep with Charlotte without leaving the house. Yet Charlotte’s sleep is more restless than ever and she carefully locks her door every chance she gets. Handful learns how to sew and helps her mother sew a new quilt covered in black triangles. Charlotte rebels in small ways whenever she can, botching sleeves or mis-sewing buttons to cause Missus as much embarrassment as possible. Handful even catches Charlotte breaking china whenever she is in a room alone, or putting dirt in the teapots. Handful warns Sarah about the tea, but otherwise says nothing.
Charlotte sews a quilt patterned with nothing but black triangles, showing how she has become focused on nothing but freedom. Though Charlotte’s acts of rebellion may seem pointless, they are an important way for Charlotte to assert her agency and personhood in a life that tries to deny her that at every turn. Handful lets her mother take out her aggression on the Grimkés, but shows her friendship for Sarah by warning her about the worst of Charlotte’s actions.
A hurricane threatens to hit Charleston and the slaves ready the house and stables for the storm. The rain hits that night, and Handful sings to herself to distract from the floodwater and the wind. The cellar room floods, ruining all the work Charlotte did on her room. After they finish cleaning up the mud, Handful takes a stick writes a few words and signs her name “Hetty” in the yard. She smears it over with her toe.
An act of nature destroys Charlotte’s carefully chosen room, showing how the entire Southern culture seems arranged against black personhood. After the stress and disappointment of the storm, Handful takes back some control over her life by practicing her writing skills.
The yard dries out and Lucy, one of Mary’s maids, notices Handful’s writing in the yard. Lucy tells Mary and Handful knows that she has been caught. Her name is scored deep into the drying mud of the yard.
Lucy, a fellow slave, betrays Handful. Lucy has been Mary’s slave for so long that she is now more loyal to Mary than she is to the other slaves, having internalized the worldview that upholds slavery itself.
Sarah. Two days later, Father calls Sarah in to see him in the library. Sarah nervously walks in to the library, trying to follow the nursery maid, Binah’s advice to act brave. Father tells Sarah that she has gravely disappointed him by teaching her slave girl to write. Sarah is aghast that Handful was so careless, but even more upset that her father is so angry. Sarah’s stammer returns as she tries to explain her benign intentions, but Father simply lectures her on the dangers of giving slaves the tool they need to incite rebellion.
Father, whom Sarah had originally seen as an ally in her family, now becomes Sarah’s judge. Sarah has broken the law, but she thought that her father agreed with her personal moral code. Sarah’s stammer returns, leaving her unable to speak up or defend herself or Handful. Sarah is powerless in this interaction with her father.
Father reveals that he is the one who tore up Sarah’s certificate of freedom for Handful, destroying all of Sarah’s ideas that her father appreciates her anti-slavery views. As punishment for all of these challenges to the Grimké way of life, Father forbids Sarah from setting foot in his library ever again. Sarah is absolutely crest-fallen, even worse when she returns to her room and finds all of the books removed. Binah brings Sarah breakfast and tells Sarah that Handful is getting her own punishment in the yard.
Faced with the realization that her seemingly perfect father upholds the evil rhetoric of slavery and black inferiority, Sarah is heartbroken. Without the books, Sarah also has no way to feed her passion for knowledge. While Sarah’s punishment is emotional, Handful’s is physical. This again reflects the racist mindset that white Sarah is a rational human and slave Handful is a brute beast.
Sarah runs down the stairs to the yard, ignoring Binah’s justification that it is only one whip lash. Sarah sees Handful tied to the post with Tomfry waiting behind her, whip in hand. Sarah screams, “No,” and Tomfry turns to her hopefully. But Mother taps her cane on the upstairs window and Tomfry turns back to Handful and brings the lash down on Handful’s back.
Binah shows the slaves’ mindset that punishment is simply a part of life. Mother again forces other slaves to commit violence, leaving her hands “innocent” of wrong-doing. White masters receive all the benefits of slavery while dealing with none of the harmful aspects.
Handful. Handful heals quickly enough from her lash wound, but notices that Sarah simply wastes away without her books. Handful keeps practicing her letters when she can and figures out new words though the lessons are over.
Mental freedom is more important than physical safety for the girls. Sarah is useless without her books and Handful continues to read even though she now knows the consequences of this action.
Charlotte makes a new baby gown for Missus, who is pregnant with yet another child. When Handful comes down to the cellar to help her, Charlotte brings out a stolen inkwell, quill, and paper, and asks Handful to write a travel pass. Handful is wary of adding to her mother’s dangerous rebellions, but writes the pass because she knows that Charlotte will leave without or without the relative safety of the pass.
Charlotte seems to care only about freedom at this point, doing nothing to ensure her own safety. Handful’s new skill has an immediate practical purpose in Charlotte’s plan: writing passes that can mimic white permission to be on the street. This allows Charlotte to have more agency over where and when she goes into town.
From then on, Charlotte disappears a couple of days each week to hire herself out and sew for pay. Scared of the danger if Charlotte gets caught, Handful asks her mother to stop leaving the Grimké grounds. Charlotte just asks Handful to put a pail next to the gate if anyone ever notices her absence, so that Charlotte can be prepared when she comes back.
Charlotte’s desire for freedom might seem to trump her care for her daughter at first, as Charlotte callously brushes off Handful’s concerns. Yet it is far more important for Handful’s spirit that Charlotte continue to resist their enslaved circumstances.
One day in January, Charlotte is found missing from her cellar sewing room. Missus asks Handful if she knows where Charlotte is, but Handful has no idea. As soon as she can, Handful puts the pail out to warn her mother. Charlotte creeps back after night fall, and pays Tomfry a half dollar to sneak her onto the roof and pretend she was there the whole time. Missus buys the story, simply lecturing Charlotte for the stupidity of going on the roof when there is sewing to be done. Charlotte takes the scolding but tells Handful that night that they should never bow and scrape to that woman.
The roof, a place closer to the sky and connecting to the flight imagery of the novel, again offers a space of freedom for the slaves by giving Charlotte an alibi for going into town. Missus’ pregnancy seems to have temporarily eased her harshness, but Missus still treats Charlotte with nothing but contempt and disrespect. Charlotte knows that she and Handful are just as worthy of respect and self-worth as any white woman.
Sarah. Sarah is not excited about another sibling, and sees how exhausted her mother is to be pregnant again. It makes Sarah shudder to think of her own future spent bearing babies. Still depressed from the lack of books, Sarah is diagnosed with severe melancholy and hysteria. Yet by the time Christmas rolls around, Sarah manages to pull herself out of the deep hole and refocus herself on the silver button and the dream it held.
Mother’s life is a sad reminder for Sarah of the life of every white woman she knows. Every woman of their social status is meant to spend their life having children and tending to a house so that men can have real careers. Sarah’s sadness at the loss of her academic passion is passed off as melancholy and hysteria, two words that have become primarily reserved for women in order to dismiss their feelings of suffocation or isolation.
The Grimkés throw Thomas a goodbye party before he goes off to college in New Haven. Sarah is finally enjoying herself again, until she hears murmured conversation about abolition by law in the Northern states. Sarah, emboldened by this talk, gives Thomas a goodbye speech that ends with her own wish to be a jurist, but her family laughs at her. Even Father refuses to consider Sarah’s dream. Sarah retreats to her room, heartbroken.
Thomas is living the life that Sarah wants, even though he himself feels trapped. When Sarah even attempts to discuss matters of abolition or law, she is silenced by her family. Anyone who might support Sarah is now involved in deconstructing her dream for good – the final blow for Sarah.
Mother goes to comfort Sarah but reaffirms how silly Sarah was to dream of studying law in the first place. Sarah notices an odd vulnerability about her mother, as Mother admits that she too once had ambitions as a girl but had those dreams knocked aside for her own good. Mother advises Sarah to stop fighting her fate. After Mother leaves, Sarah takes her silver button and drops it in the fire as Handful mournfully watches.
Mother reaffirms that female ambition is an unnatural and harmful thing. Without any (white) female support at all, Sarah finally gives up her dream and her silver button. Handful, a true friend (and one with much more crucial and dangerous goals), saves Sarah’s button for a time when she is ready to work towards her goal once more.
At the beginning of February, Mother takes to her bed to prepare for the new baby’s birth. Sarah visits her with a request to be named the godmother of the new baby. Mother resists, saying that the religious welfare of a child is too important to trust to a 12-year-old girl, but Sarah persists. Finally, Mother grants Sarah’s wish as a consolation for losing all her other ambitions.
All of Mother’s mobility and choice is taken away by the pregnancy. Sarah starts to tie together religion and belonging, asking to be the new baby’s godmother so that she will have something of her own in the Grimké family.
Handful. Handful wraps red thread around a tree in the yard to make a spirit tree. Handful and Charlotte give their spirits to the tree as Handful strokes the silver button that she rescued from Sarah’s fire. Handful officially announces that she gives her spirit to the tree, following the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, then gathers leaves and twigs to keep in a pouch at her neck. Handful reflects on the events of the past year, Sarah’s friendship, and reading, and knows that she will have trouble accepting slavish obedience from here on out.
Handful uses the red thread she stole from Sarah to make a spirit tree that keeps her soul safe from any damage that living as a slave might do to her body. This tree is a tangible reminder that Handful’s mind cannot be enslaved, especially now that she has reaffirmed her humanity with her mother and broadened her horizons through books. Sarah’s friendship as well shows Handful a world that she deserves just as much as a white girl does.