Sarah. Six years later, Sarah is getting ready for a society ball. Sarah makes up her face while her godchild (and little sister) Nina tries to follow Handful’s instructions on how to braid Sarah’s thin, red hair. At 18, Sarah has been a part of society for two years but still hates the general hubbub, only putting up with the rituals because she knows she must find a husband.
This scene between Sarah, Handful, and Nina is the most genuine affection Sarah has received so far in the novel, with the three women forming a small temporary family. Sarah still feels as though she doesn’t belong in the elite society that the Grimké name gives her access to.
Nina (christened Angelina) is a beautiful child with a lively intellect. Sarah tries to ensure that Nina remains fearless, though Sarah herself has had to give up all of her dreams the way that proper ladies must. The bond between Nina and Sarah is so strong that Nina calls Sarah “mother,” and Sarah tries to teach Nina to hate slavery the way that she does.
Sarah tries to make sure that Nina will be able to achieve everything that she herself wasn’t. As Nina’s surrogate mother, Sarah is determined to foster Nina’s ambitions rather than crush them. She also passes on her hatred of slavery, showing how each subsequent generation can push further toward equality.
Sarah lets Nina pick her dress for the night. Handful helps Sarah gets dressed and Sarah notes the distance that has grown between the two friends. Sarah tries to empathize with Handful’s discovery of the boundaries on her life, but Handful refuses to let Sarah pretend that their struggles are equal.
Kidd displays an intersectional outlook on discrimination, comparing Sarah and Handful’s differing situations. While Sarah and Handful each suffer, Handful is oppressed due to both her gender and her race. Sarah cannot understand that by simply comparing the sexism that she has experienced as a free white.
Mother comes in and scolds Sarah for wearing a dress she has worn just two nights earlier, but Sarah insists on wearing the dress that Nina chose. Mother tries to command Nina back to the nursery, but Nina throws a fit and demands to stay with Sarah, her real mother. Mother gives in and leaves, as Sarah scolds Nina for calling her “mother” in front of Mother.
Sarah and Nina’s individuality is threatened by societal rules, as even a simple dress choice is dictated by convention. Sarah and Nina defy these conventions and stay loyal to each other above all else. The blood bonds of motherhood and sisterhood matter less than the relationships that Sarah and Nina have chosen to build with each other.
At the ball, Sarah dances only with her brother Thomas, home from Yale, until Thomas leaves to dance with his betrothed. Sarah stays at the fringes of the party, self-consciously hiding her strong jaw with her fan. Sarah silently scorns the other girls of Charleston for the ridiculous fashions they wear, yet can’t help but envy their ease and grace. Sarah can never escape her discomfort in polite society, especially one that depends on slavery but refuses to call it by name – referring only to “the peculiar institution.”
Sarah, already harboring an “unfeminine” intellect, also looks slightly masculine with her strong jaw. Sarah tries to judge the darlings of society just as harshly as they judge her, but can’t quite escape her jealousy. Life would be easier for Sarah if she could escape her scruples and live comfortably in society. Though Sarah does not yet speak out publically against slavery, she sees the injustice of distancing “polite” white society from the evil institution that makes Southern life possible.
Sarah turns to leave the room and runs into a slave carrying a pitcher of punch, causing a spectacular spill. A striking young white man is caught in the mess, but takes the blame for the accident to save Sarah’s pride. Sarah and the young man go to a private chamber to dry their clothes, and the young man introduces himself as Burke Williams. Sarah is quite taken by Burke’s appearance and his straight-forward manner.
Burke accepts the blame for Sarah’s social mistake, making it possible for Sarah to remain happily at the party. This seems like a good thing, especially given Sarah’s immediate attraction to Burke, but the slave with the pitcher is a subtle reminder that fitting in with society means tacitly approving of slave labor.
Sarah and Burke pass the party together, though Sarah is aware that Burke’s family background as a silver merchant puts him below her status as a member of the planter elite. Sarah cares nothing for the class difference, too enamored with the fact that a lovely boy is flirting with her and she is not embarrassing herself. Burke kisses Sarah’s hand and promises to call on her soon.
Class inequality in Charleston is not limited to simply black slaves and white owners. There are layers also among white society, with planters who own slaves at the top. Sarah extends her desire for equality to this type of class difference as well, connecting with Burke as a person rather than a lowly son of a silver merchant.
Handful. Handful and Charlotte begin to sew a story quilt, sitting under the spirit tree. Handful worries over Sarah strutting through society and mourns the loss of Sarah’s friendship now that Sarah is rightfully focused on Nina. Even distracted by these thoughts, Handful is a better seamstress than her mother. Missus made Handful apprentice seamstress when she was 15.
Handful and Sarah are each growing up, creating a distance in their friendship as their life paths (and disparate levels of opportunity) begin to diverge more clearly. While Sarah attends parties, Handful has to learn to work. At the tender age of 15, Handful is treated as an adult slave.
Charlotte sews figures into the quilt squares, promising to explain the whole story to Handful once the quilt is finished. Handful recognizes some of the scenes, like the night the stars fell, but Charlotte only has so much time to work on the story quilt before she has to return to the Grimkés’ sewing or pieces to sell.
Charlotte’s story quilt offers her a chance to express her own voice and give her own perspective on her life. Important as this work is to Charlotte, it has to take second place to her master’s demands or work that may buy her freedom.
Handful tells her mother that Sarah’s thoughts are full of some boy she met at a ball, and Charlotte admits that she has a sweetheart too. His name is Denmark Vesey and he is a Free Black man, having won the lottery and purchased himself from his master. Handful asks why her mother doesn’t just buy a lottery ticket, but Charlotte refuses to waste any of her hard earned money.
Denmark Vesey is the ultimate lucky story for a slave, yet Charlotte rejects the hope of the lottery in favor of working hard for her freedom. Handful admires Charlotte’s determination to earn their freedom, keeping their pride intact.
Missus actually allows Charlotte to hire out and make money, softened by a special quilt Charlotte made of all Missus’s children’s old clothing. Charlotte has earned $190, but Handful doesn’t believe that the Grimkés will ever actually let two such wonderful seamstresses go free. Charlotte just says that their sewing will go bad if that ever happens. Charlotte does not want to end up like Snow, the Grimkés’ coachman who died a slave. The new coachman, Goodis, is sweet on Handful, but Handful refuses to even think of taking a husband. Charlotte happily agrees, saying that the price for herself and Handful will be high enough, once Handful finds out what it is.
In other twist of injustice, Handful reveals that the Grimkés have the power to deny Charlotte and Handful freedom even if they earn their price. Charlotte takes back agency by maintaining control over her sewing skill – the one thing that the Grimkés cannot take away from her. Everything else, including life and romantic relationships, is at the mercy of their masters. Handful is understandably reluctant to open herself up to the pain of losing a husband.
Sarah. Sarah starts to keep a diary of lovesick rambles about Burke, resenting his hold on her even as she falls for him. Only Nina and the arrival of a new wonderful copper bathtub distract Sarah. In March, Sarah is ecstatic to receive a note from Burke asking if he may call the next night. Sarah happily tells Handful and Nina the good news, dreaming of marrying Burke.
Sarah’s resentment of Burke’s control on her mind reveals that this relationship is not as happy as it might seem. Sarah should be using her intellect for more than baths and waiting for letters from Burke. Yet marriage is traditionally the only happy ending for a woman in Charleston society.
The next night, Burke is fifteen minutes late, causing Mother and Father fits at the impolite snub. Sarah is just happy to see his handsome face again. Father interrogates Burke about his family’s lowly silver shop, but Burke reminds Father than the Grimké ancestor owned a silver shop himself before working to become a part of Charleston aristocracy. Father is quieted, but maintains a dislike of Burke.
Burke gives polite society as little respect as Sarah does, and challenges the Grimkés’ class superiority. Sarah takes this as another reason to love Burke, thinking that he is a misfit in society just like her.
At the hour of slave curfew, Burke politely leaves, but intimately asks Sarah to toss a lock of her hair over the fence as he steps out the door. Sarah goes back into the house, hearing her parents insult Burke’s background, and runs to her room. Sarah interrupts Handful slowly reading Leonidas and orders Handful to cut a lock of hair for Burke. Handful doesn’t understand, but obeys. Sarah wraps the hair in a handkerchief and rushes back down to the garden fence and throws the bundle across.
Sarah defies her parents’ wishes yet again, but this time it is only to pursue Burke. Focused on a relationship with the socially acceptable Burke, Sarah treats Handful like an ordinary slave mistress might. Burke makes Sarah forget about her friendship with Handful, and treat Handful with disrespect. Sarah even interrupts Handful reading, though she knows how important it is for Handful and her emotional well-being.
The next day, Father immediately moves the family to Belmont, ostensibly to prepare for Thomas’ impending wedding but truly to separate Sarah from Burke. Sarah busies herself with renovating the slave infirmary to keep her mind off her absent suitor. Mother chides Sarah for spending so much energy on the infirmary, and only allows Sarah to write to Burke once while they are gone. Sarah hopes that her hair will be enough to keep Burke interested, comparing this faith to Handful’s trust in the pouch of bark she keeps at her neck. Yet Sarah thinks little of Handful while she is gone, only noticing that there is a wide and steadily growing gulf between her and her childhood friend.
Sarah does work to improve the lives of slaves in Belmont, yet her focus on the infirmary also has a selfish motive. Sarah’s help for the slaves is impossibly tied up with her own biases. Though Handful is supposed to be Sarah’s best friend, Burke keeps Sarah from thinking of her. With Burke on her mind, Sarah even seems to laugh at Handful’s spiritual practice of keeping pieces of the spirit tree with her at all times, though this is anything but a joke to Handful. However, Kidd points out that Sarah’s lock of hair is a very similar practice, drawing another parallel between the two girls.
Handful. Handful takes advantage of the Grimkés’ absence to sneak in Master Grimké’s library and find out the price for herself and her mother. Sarah has let Handful keep practicing reading poems, and Handful can now puzzle out most words. Handful finds the list of all of Master Grimké’s possessions, with the slaves written out just under his garden tools and bushels of corn. Charlotte is $550, and Handful is $500, prices that make Handful proud—she and her mother are worth almost as much as the male slaves, and more than any other female slaves.
Handful’s ability to read is a blessing and a curse, opening the entire library to her, but showing her just how little the white masters think of black slaves like herself. At first, Handful is impressed with the price for her and her mother. Their monetary prices reflect both racism—reducing the slaves to objects and possession instead of people—and sexism—valuing men more than women.
Handful tells her mother that they need $1,050 for freedom, knowing it would take 10 years for Charlotte to earn that much. Handful wants to give up hope, but Charlotte won’t listen to that “white talk.” Handful goes to the window to watch boats in the harbor and finally realizes that the list of slaves makes them no better than objects. Her pride gone, Handful sobs. When Handful goes to the cellar for the night, Charlotte sees her raw eyes and reminds Handful that no one can decide her worth for her.
Handful and Charlotte’s high prices may be a point of pride, but they also add another obstacle to gaining their freedom. Charlotte remains determined, saying giving up is something that only white people would do in the face of oppression. Only later does Handful truly mourn the implications of having a price on her head, not matter how high. Again, Charlotte helps Handful hold on to her self-worth and helps her resist some of slavery’s damaging psychological burdens.
Sarah. The Grimkés return to Charleston in May, a day earlier than expected. Sarah is elated to find a letter from Burke waiting for her, asking Sarah to spend the day horseback riding with him. Sarah goes to her room and finds Handful taking a bath in the wondrous copper tub. Handful is shocked to be discovered, but refuses to ask forgiveness for her indiscretion. Sarah angrily rants at Handful in her head. Handful starts to speak, but Sarah asks her not to say anything. Sarah helps Handful empty the tub so that Mother will never find out.
When Sarah catches Handful in the bathtub, she surprises even herself with how angry she is that Handful took advantage of this privilege. Though Sarah talks often about equality, she is not comfortable with actually treating Handful as an equal. Sarah still helps Handful to protect her from punishment, but the distance in their friendship widens further.
Handful tells Sarah that she didn’t see any harm in bathing in the tub just like Sarah does. Sarah then realizes that Handful’s bath was not a revolt but a baptism. She further regrets that her anger at the bath is proof that she has grown accustomed to the evils of slavery. Sarah tries to tell Handful that it’s all right, but Sarah’s stammer has returned.
Handful herself meant no disrespect by taking the bath, simply claiming for herself the same comforts that Sarah enjoys. Sarah has to come to terms with the fact that giving Handful equal rights does not rob her of her own rights. Living with slavery has affected Sarah despite her best efforts, and her stammer seemingly returns because she is no longer honestly following her principles for equality.
Handful. Handful goes with Charlotte to buy fabric at the market. The market is full of strange smells, sounds, and people. Handful enjoys the trip, and teases her mother about the free black man that she sees twice a week. Charlotte hurriedly finishes the shopping and takes Handful to 20 Bull street, the house where Denmark Vesey lives. Handful sees a woman through the window and is surprised to find out that her mother is sleeping with a man who already has a wife, but Charlotte is not ashamed.
Handful’s world is very small, limited to the Grimké house and the places that the Grimkés allow her to go. Charlotte too has to steal moments when she can to do the things that she wants. Denmark Vesey offers a very different view of the world, one that is liberating in some ways and confining in others. Denmark liberates Charlotte from the life of a slave, yet he takes many mistresses with no regard for how it affects his wife. Denmark symbolizes racial equality but fails to support gender equality.
Denmark Vesey comes out of his house and Charlotte introduces Handful. For the next year, Charlotte goes to Denmark’s house whenever she has the chance. When Charlotte and Denmark are finished having an intimate moment in his workshop, Denmark talks to Handful. He boasts about all the places he visited when he worked on a slave ship. Denmark even tells Handful about another free black man who owns three slaves himself. Denmark is also deeply religious, quoting the Bible and telling biblical stories of doom every five minutes. Denmark terrifies Handful.
Kidd complicates the class differences in Charlotte by also mentioning black men who own black slaves. Handful can’t believe that black people would commit that sort of cruelty against their fellow black people. Yet owning slaves was one way to climb up the social ladder, a very enticing prospect for free black people who still lived as second-class citizens in Charleston. Denmark shows another version of black spirituality, using the same bible as the white Christians, but for very different reasons.
The first time Handful waited outside the workshop, she wandered down the street a way, stepping aside for a white woman so that the lady could pass on the narrow path. Handful finds this ordinary, but Denmark rushed down the street, grabbed Handful’s arm and shamed her for stepping aside and groveling to the white woman. Handful can’t believe that Denmark even dared to touch her, but didn’t fight back. Charlotte asked Denmark to let Handful go, and Charlotte and Handful walked home. Though Handful doesn’t like Denmark, she understands what her mother sees in him: the promise of going places.
Denmark may have good intentions in telling Handful to stop giving reverence to white people, but his methods are also condescending and oppressive. Denmark’s passionate defense of racial equality is crucial, but it is not true liberation he’s fighting for as long as he still treats women poorly. Still, Charlotte’s world is as constrained as Handful’s, and Denmark gives her the chance to dream of broadening her horizons and escaping slavery.
Sarah. Nina is obsessed with helping Sarah get rid of her speech impediment. Sarah allows Nina to try anything to help, and sits quietly on the balcony while Nina tries to massage Sarah’s tongue with a towel. Sarah watches the sea, looking out to Sullivan’s Island where she last rode horses with Burke. Finally, Nina lets go of Sarah’s tongue, calling the experiment hopeless. Nina commands Sarah to loosen herself. Sarah does her best to comply, imagining the sight of Handful’s bathwater pouring into the yard. Nina then tells Sarah to repeat “Wicked Willy Wiggle” and Sarah is able to do so without stuttering.
Sarah’s speech impediment is more than a normal physical difficulty, as Sarah’s mental and emotional state greatly affects her ability to speak clearly. More than simple nervousness or a natural speech impediment, Sarah’s stutter closely tracks her discomfort with slavery. Thinking of Handful’s bath, a moment in which Sarah had to confront how deeply committed she was to equality, helps loosen Sarah’s tongue. It seems as though she is meant to speak out against slavery.
Sarah turns nineteen and Mother reminds her that she is now marriageable age. Sarah gets fitted for new dresses, the only contact she has with Handful. Handful sings to avoid talking and Sarah is secretly grateful. That January, Sarah overhears her brothers comforting Father that they will defend him against a mysterious recent outrage. Sarah is at first moved to help her father, then grows angry that her brothers never defended her, or indeed any other woman, from all their lack of rights and injustices they face.
Sarah and Handful’s friendship deteriorates faster the more Sarah enters white society. Sarah also considers her relationship to her family, at first feeling loyal to her family above all else, and then wondering why her family will not stand up for her rights. Men in Sarah’s life stand up for each other with no thought for women.
A week later, Sarah and her sister Mary Jr. attend a parlor concert together. Burke rushes to Sarah’s side, and hands her a letter, and tells her to open it later. After the concert is over, Burke takes Sarah outside on the porch. Sarah opens the letter to find a marriage proposal. She immediately accepts, though she is supposed to consult her parents first. Sarah is shocked when Burke kisses her on the lips, but Burke tells her that such liberties are allowed now that they are engaged. Burke kisses Sarah passionately, mussing her dress and hair.
Burke ironically takes “liberties”—that is, getting physically intimate with Sarah—now that they are engaged. Yet engagement is the beginning of Sarah’s loss of liberty. As a wife, Sarah will be essentially Burke’s property and will have very little freedom to make decisions for herself. Even worse, Sarah is not supposed to choose her husband on her own, as she is expected to defer choice on that matter to her father.
Sarah and Burke walk back to the house, where the host of the concert, Mr. Drayton, waits at the door. Mr. Drayton questions Sarah’s unkempt appearance, as she tries to smooth over the impropriety with the news that she and Burke are engaged. Still skeptical, Mr. Drayton remains skeptical but congratulates Sarah on happy news for her family in spite of the impeachment charges against her father. Sarah is shocked to finally find out what her brothers were trying to defend Father from.
Social propriety demands both that Sarah find a husband and that she remain chaste and pure until the marriage, confining acceptable female behavior into a very narrow set of rules. Sarah’s engagement is supposedly her greatest triumph, yet it is contrasted with her father’s greatest failure as a judge. Women’s achievements are solely personal while men’s achievements can be personal or professional.
Any celebration about Sarah’s engagement is covered by worry about the impeachment. Father remains in his library day and night as Sarah overhears wisps of grim conversation. The trial that spring finds Father acquitted, but the whole affair dirties the Grimké name and ruins Father’s health. Unnoticed by the family in crisis, Burke continues to meet Sarah for unchaperoned visits where he pushes the boundary of proper intimacy between unmarried couples.
Sarah is meant to only worry herself with her engagement and impending marriage, while her brothers take care of the legal matters. Though Sarah is intelligent and has studied law, she is not allowed to help her family in this crisis. As a woman, Sarah is again relegated to the background.
Handful. Charlotte fusses around the cellar room at night, watching the sky and sewing more of her story quilt. Handful can’t wait to see the finished product, but pretends to sleep as her mother works to give Charlotte privacy. Charlotte keeps the squares locked in a trunk with the money that she has earned so far. There is now $400 saved.
The one thing over which Charlotte has complete control is her story quilt. Handful respects that privacy, thereby respecting her mother’s freedom. Charlotte keeps the quilt with the money that will buy their freedom, using the quilt as inspiration to make sure her story ends in something other than slavery.
As Charlotte works on the quilt, Handful thinks about Sarah and Burke, unable to imagine Sarah marrying a man who never respects slaves. Sarah asked Handful if Handful would move with Sarah when she marries, but Handful refuses to leave her mother. Across the room, Charlotte wonders aloud how old she is. Handful guesses that her mother is 38, twice Handful’s age of 19. Handful and Charlotte see a shooting star out the window, and Charlotte rubs her belly. Handful realizes that her mother is not too old to be pregnant again.
As Sarah and Burke get closer, Sarah and Handful drift ever farther apart. Sarah selfishly asks Handful to leave her family in order to continue serving her, but Handful is strong enough to stand up for herself. Yet Handful realizes that her mother has more secrets. Charlotte has not told Handful that she is pregnant, though a baby will complicate the pursuit of freedom for them both.
Sarah. Thomas takes a day off lawyering to meet with Sarah privately, putting Sarah on edge. Sarah is worried that Father’s bad health has worsened further, remembering how Father was too sick even to attend her engagement party months earlier. Sarah is no longer close with her father, and the only words he has said about her marriage was a warning that there is no divorce law in South Carolina.
Father does not seem concerned with Sarah’s happiness in her marriage. His reminder about the impossibility of divorce, itself an oppressive law that keeps women trapped in bad situations, seems more concerned with the fact that Sarah is marrying down into the merchant class than that Sarah might not be happy with Burke.
Thomas hesitantly tells Sarah that Burke has asked two other women to marry him. Sarah does not understand why Burke would do that until Thomas explains that Burke proposes in order to convince women to have sexual relations with him. Thomas reveals that he confronted Burke last night and broke the engagement for Sarah, and Sarah is as angry that Thomas took away her chance to confront Burke herself as she is that Burke has been so cruel.
Burke used social conventions to take advantage of women. Sarah is obviously hurt by this discovery, but another wound is that Thomas made huge life decisions for her, effectively silencing her. Sarah would have been capable of breaking the engagement herself, and would have been able to stand up for her pride in the process.
Thomas leaves Sarah with one more apology and the news that Mother commands Sarah to withdraw from society for three weeks as the talk dies down. Sarah is angry and embarrassed that she fell for Burke’s trick. She rips up Burke’s proposal letter and watches birds fly across her window and disappear.
Sarah never enjoyed society, but there is further insult in the idea that she must withdraw from society for a scandal that was Burke’s fault. The birds flying across Sarah’s window are a reminder of the ever smaller chance that Sarah will be able to do what she wants with her life.
Handful. Handful is sorry that Sarah has been hurt so badly, but glad that Burke is no longer a part of their lives. Handful puts together a tray to bring up to Sarah and slips Sarah’s silver button onto a saucer. When Sarah sees it, she just stares. Handful tells Sarah that the button is there for her, and leaves Sarah’s room.
With Burke and the promise of social acceptance gone for good, Handful reminds Sarah of her original passion to be a juror. Handful supports Sarah when it matters the most, though their relationship has been strained recently.
Sarah. Sarah, still in isolation, worries about Nina, who is playing with young girls who live next to the horrible Work House where slaves are punished. Nina was traumatized hearing the screams from the building last time she went into town. It starts to rain and Sarah decides to go get Nina herself. Goodis takes Sarah into town but the carriage gets stuck in a mud hole. As Goodis leaves to get help, Sarah sees Charlotte walking down the street.
Like Sarah, Nina is sensitive to the horrors of slavery. Yet rather than taking the radical position and ensuring that these horrors never happen in the first place, Sarah is only brave enough to protect Nina from learning of the evils of slavery. Sarah does not yet realize that she needs to do more.
Charlotte is so focused on keeping her feet out of the mud that she doesn’t notice a white woman walking towards her. Etiquette dictates that a slave will step into the mud so that the white woman will not dirty her shoes. Sarah watches in horror as the white woman meets Charlotte and Charlotte refuses to step aside. A City Guard comes to force Charlotte to move, but Charlotte swings her basket of fabric at the white woman, knocking the white woman into the mud. The Guard reaches Charlotte and forces Charlotte into a wagon. Sarah screams Charlotte’s name and Charlotte finds Sarah’s eyes as she is dragged away.
Charlotte’s refusal to move is an important step in Charlotte’s journey of self-worth and freedom. Yet seeing this scene from Sarah’s perspective only highlights the danger that Charlotte is in. As a slave, standing up for herself means taking a huge risk with her life and safety. Sarah can only watch and witness this injustice, unable to overcome the laws that dictate life in Charleston.
Handful. Earlier that day, Charlotte takes off to town looking happy and clean for her visit to Denmark. Handful tries to make sure that her mother’s work badge and pouch of spirit tree clippings are securely fastened. Handful is full of questions about Charlotte’s new pregnancy, but stays silent as her mother walks away.
Charlotte takes great pride in her appearance on this day, adding emotional weight to her later refusal to dirty herself in the mud for a white woman’s sake (as Sarah previously narrated). Additionally, Handful’s care to make sure Charlotte has a piece of the spirit tree with her echoes the idea that Charlotte needs to have some of her soul with her if she is ever taken from the Grimké house.
Mid-afternoon, Handful sees Sarah and Nina come back in a carriage driven by Goodis, who gives Handful a pitying look. No one says a word to Handful until nightfall, when Sarah comes to tell Handful that her mother was taken away by the City Guard. Handful is actually hopeful, having expected someone to tell her that Charlotte was dead. Sarah continues to say that no one knows where Charlotte is now, as she escaped the guard and ran away. Handful whispers, “She’ll come back,” over and over all night.
Sarah is willing to tell Handful the truth even when it is hard. Handful has spent her life preparing for the worst, a sign of the hopelessness of being a slave. Handful has to believe that Charlotte will come back, as Charlotte was Handful’s main source of strength and inspiration at the Grimké house – as well as her only comfort now that Sarah and Handful are no longer close.
Sarah. Charlotte’s disappearance puts Burke’s betrayal into perspective for Sarah. The Grimkés put an ad in the newspaper for a disappeared slave, but there is no response. Sarah watches Handful pacing circles around the yard without stop every day. Sarah looks at Handful’s grief and sees that her own sadness is more shame than tragedy. Sarah takes comfort in the break from society.
Burke’s betrayal may have had poor social consequences, but it is not a true tragedy like Charlotte’s disappearance. Though Sarah faces hardship, she knows nothing of the struggles that Handful faces as a slave. This time away from society gives Sarah a good chance to reflect on these injustices.
A month after Charlotte disappears, Mother forces Handful to go back to work doing all the sewing. Sarah is forced back into society again, with orders to cheer up and find a husband once more. Sarah goes to a lecture at the Presbyterian Church, knowing that her family does not approve of Presbyterian revivalism, and is incredibly moved by the reverend’s call to repentance. Sarah silently vows that she will never marry, instead dedicating her life to God.
The Grimkés have seemingly little sympathy for Handful, even though she has just lost her mother. While Handful has to return to work, Sarah simply has to return to society. With Burke gone, Sarah knows for sure that she will never belong to the Charleston upper-class. She dedicates her life to religion instead, looking for something more meaningful.
On Sarah’s 20th birthday, the Grimkés have a simple dinner to celebrate. Thomas debates a new idea with Father: colonization, or sending the slaves back to Africa. Sarah shocks her family by declaring herself against colonization, only to scandalize them further by advocating for setting the slaves free and letting them live in America as equals. Silence falls over the room, and Sarah realizes the magnitude of declaring slaves equal to whites. Father asks if Sarah got this idea from the Presbyterians, but Sarah says she thought of it herself, thinking of all the things she has experienced with Handful.
Sarah now becomes an advocate of radical equality, not just freeing the slaves but living in racial equality with black and white people. While this idea seems natural to Sarah, it flies in the face of the entire Southern way of life, which is built around slavery and white supremacy. The Anglican church also preaches that blacks are naturally inferior to whites, no matter the morality of slavery as an institution.
Handful. Handful mourns Charlotte’s disappearance but puts aside her grief and anger to get back to sewing work. One night, Handful finds the key to open Charlotte’s trunk. She takes out the bundle of quilt squares and lays the squares out, marveling at all of the vibrant colors. Handful can tell what the events are in some of the squares, but others are a mystery.
Handful takes out her mother’s quilt, keeping Charlotte’s desire for freedom and Charlotte’s voice present even though Charlotte herself is now gone. The quilt is a triumph of Charlotte’s vibrant spirit over the chains of slavery.
The first square is the stars falling as Handful’s grandmother arrives in America. The second is Handful’s grandmother hoeing the field. Third is Charlotte learning to sew. Fourth is a spirit tree behind two bodies picked clean by vultures. Fifth is Handful’s father Shanney working the field. Sixth is Charlotte and Handful (as a baby) lying on a quilt frame. Handful lets all the stories wash over her, feeling chills.
Charlotte’s quilt includes important moments in her life, both happy and sad, that shaped her into a strong woman determined to reach freedom. These stories are also Handful’s legacy, and a reminder of the freedom that their family once had.
Two squares are Charlotte’s one-legged punishment and Handful’s whip lash for learning to read. The last square is Denmark Vesey standing proudly next to the number 1884, something that means little to Handful. Handful pieces the quilt together and spends the whole day sewing, stuffing, and finishing the quilt. Handful cuts all her hair off and puts that in the quilt as well. It is only after Handful finishes that she realizes that she never found the $400 her mother had saved. The next morning, Handful wears the quilt like a cape and walks out into the sun.
The last squares juxtapose the worst that Charlotte has suffered as a slave with the hope of escape, shown by Handful’s reading and Denmark’s freedom. Handful finishes the quilt, suggesting that she will also be able to finish Charlotte’s mission to buy their freedom from the Grimkés. Handful may not have Charlotte’s money, but she certainly has Charlotte’s strength and support in the form of the quilt.