Handful. Six years after Charlotte disappeared, Handful still searches for her every time she goes to town. The slaves hold a memorial for Charlotte every year on the day she went missing. By now the slaves gather and only tell stories that highlight the good sides of Charlotte, ignoring the pain. Handful wishes that the others knew the real Charlotte, and tells everyone that her mother wouldn’t have run off. Tomfry puts it straight: Either Charlotte ran off or she’s dead.
Handful wants the other slaves to tell Charlotte’s full story, acknowledging her suffering as well as her strength. This true story is a better memorial for Handful than ignoring the bad parts of the past – just as it is impossible to memorialize slavery by ignoring its true pain. Tomfry’s honesty is harsh, but realistic. Charlotte’s fate is most likely not a happy ending.
Handful goes to her cellar room and lies on the story quilt, thinking about the way that Charlotte told her story. Handful has taken over sewing duties completely, no longer helping Sarah with anything. Sarah even gave Handful back to Missus, though Sarah tried to explain to Handful that she would have freed Handful if she could have. Handful finally understands that she has the same choices as her mother: run away or die a slave.
Handful is essentially in the same place as Charlotte—the seamstress for the Grimké family with very little hope of ever achieving freedom without running away. Yet Handful does have one thing that Charlotte did not. While Charlotte could only sew to express herself, Handful’s friendship with Sarah left her with the ability to read and write to tell her own story.
In January, Handful hears about a new African church in Charleston meant just for black people. Denmark Vesey attends and contributes many of the messages. Handful hates to think of Denmark again, but decides to join the African church so that she can talk to Denmark about her mother’s disappearance. Handful fake cries to Sarah for a pass and Missus allows Handful to go twice a week as long as it doesn’t cause any problems.
While Sarah joins the Presbyterian church because it better matches her own convictions, Handful joins the African church for the possible advantages that the church community can offer. Handful does not feel a connection to the spiritual fervor of the religion, but sees the practical uses of it.
Sarah. Sarah and Nina are called to the drawing room where Mother and Reverend Gadsden are waiting. Nina refused to be confirmed in the Anglican church the past Sunday and Sarah shudders to think what Nina will say now. Nina’s fiery temperament and confidence are much stronger than Sarah’s, though Nina is only 14. Nina was even able to refuse the present of a slave when she turned 11. Sarah feels she can say nothing about Nina’s loss of religion, given that Sarah herself rejected the Anglicans in favor of the Presbyterians.
Nina refuses to join the Anglican church for the same reasons that Sarah left it: she sees it as an institution that protects slavery at the cost of practicing true Christian brotherhood and love. Nina takes all of Sarah’s abolitionist principles one step further into action, as Nina seems not to care at all about the possible consequences of being rejected by society. This is partly due to the fact that Nina has Sarah’s support, whereas Sarah was on her own.
The only thing Sarah and Nina disagree on is religion. Nina finds Presbyterian asceticism pointless, as Sarah attends society functions then prays to beg forgiveness for the excess afterwards. Still, Sarah dreads the day that Nina marries and leaves her alone in the Grimké house as a spinster. At 26, Sarah is now too old for the society balls where she might have found a husband.
Nina, though she is more radical, is also more conventionally attractive. Sarah imagines that this will help Nina better fit into the Charleston society that rejected Sarah.
Reverend Gadsden tries to reason with Nina not to put her soul in jeopardy and Mother guilts Nina with the thought that Father’s dying wish might be to see her confirmed. Nina refuses to be moved, and Sarah stands up for Nina’s right to follow her conscience. Mother accuses Sarah of brainwashing Nina, though Nina takes offense at the suggestion that she cannot think for herself. Mother escorts the Reverend to the door, sighing that Sarah and Nina’s souls are both lost as long as they live in the same house. Sarah lies awake that night, imagining Nina sent off to a boarding school.
Sarah and Nina are much stronger when they are together, modeling how female solidarity can prove to be a huge source of strength for women who choose socially unacceptable lives. Yet Nina does not want to think of herself as some sort of disciple of Sarah’s. She asserts her own individuality and equal intelligence to Sarah. Still, Sarah does not want to think about the possibility of being separated from Nina, her real family.
Handful. At a meeting of the African Church, Denmark Vesey speaks to a congregation of 200 slaves. Handful has been attending for four months and has learned nothing about Charlotte, but is actually starting to understand what other people see in religion. The services give people hope, though Handful agrees with Denmark that hoping for heaven is useless if one does nothing to improve their life here.
Many slaves looked to religion as a form of community and belonging in a world that otherwise offered no places of comfort or support. Handful sees this, but continues to use the Christian faith as a tool for other things. She believes more strongly in the Fon religion of her family and childhood than the hope of a Christian heaven.
As the congregation sings, the City Guard bursts in and starts surrounding the people. Denmark tries to throw them out, but a guard just hits Denmark in the face with his gun. The head guard reads a warrant of arrest for all the church members for causing a nuisance to the neighbors. The guards round up the congregation to take them to the Guard House. From there, a slave’s master either has to pay a fine for the slave’s release, or the slave is sent to the Work House.
The guard does not respect the sanctity of the African Church, though they would have never come in to the Anglican church to commit violence. The congregation is arrested for nothing more than a noise complaint from their white neighbors—another instance of the oppressed having their voices forcibly silenced.
Handful spends the night in the jail cell, listening to everyone snore and fight while a baby cries. In the morning, a slave with deep whip scars on his back tells everyone that the fine for release is 5 dollars, which equals 12 lashes or time on the treadmill at the Work House. The morning wears on and the baby cries louder because her mother cannot raise any milk for her. Finally, the guard comes into the cell and begins reading the names of the slaves whose masters have paid the fine. Handful cannot believe that her own name isn’t called.
The conditions in the jail cell are inhumane, with no compassion even for a baby as long as he is considered a slave. The masters who paid the fine are lauded as saints of compassion and mercy, even though the slaves never should have been arrested (or enslaved) in the first place. Handful unfortunately belongs to Missus once more. Had she belonged to Sarah, Sarah likely would have paid the fine.
At the Work House, Handful and 11 other slaves are led past the Treadmill. Denmark is there, having refused to pay the fine for himself as long as there were any slaves whose masters did not pay for them. Handful thinks that Denmark probably just didn’t have five dollars. Denmark recognizes Handful, but doesn’t know who she is. Handful just says she goes to the African Church and asks where God’s deliverance is now. The lady with the baby gasps when the overseer tells her that no one has time to watch her baby when it is her turn on the treadmill. The overseers then chain the slaves up to the treadmill, a contraption that forces people to run in order to grind corn.
Handful questions Denmark’s religious fervor, though Denmark tries to present himself as a modern-day Christ figure willing to suffer with his people. Handful still has not revealed who her mother is, or asked him about Charlotte. Now, Handful has even less faith in religion’s potential to offer comfort in the midst of suffering. The only possible deliverance would be for the slaves to save themselves. Treadmill work like this is usually reserved for animals, further degrading and punishing the slaves.
Sarah. Sarah comes into the kitchen where Aunt-Sister is tending to Handful’s mangled foot. Sarah starts to cry, guilty that Mother was able to be so cruel to Handful because Sarah gave Handful back to Mother—which she did to soothe her own conscience at owning a slave. Handful’s foot has a gash from ankle to toe, and Aunt-Sister explains that Handful fell off the treadmill and her foot was crushed by the wheel. Sarah takes Handful’s hand and bends close to hear what Handful is trying to say. Handful hisses, “Go away.” Sarah does so, trying to convince herself that Handful is simply delirious with medicine.
Though Kidd has not shied away from describing other scenes of violence in detail, she chooses to skip over Handful’s injury in the work house, suggesting that the experience was so traumatic that even Handful cannot yet face what happened. Sarah tries to bring comfort to Handful after the fact, but Handful no longer wants Sarah’s pity when Sarah does nothing to prevent the horrific effects of slavery.
Handful stays in her room for ten days and Sarah stays away for fear that Handful truly does not want to see her. Still, Sarah leaves two books at the door for Handful. The day Handful comes out, Sarah and Nina rush away from the breakfast table to go talk to her in the yard as Handful winds fresh red thread around a tree. Sarah apologizes, and Handful thanks her for leaving the books. Nina asks to touch Handful’s foot, and Handful lets her. As Nina touches the scar, Sarah asks if there is anything that Handful needs. Handful looks at Sarah with angry eyes and laughs, then softens when Sarah scrambles to explain what she meant. Handful just turns and limps back to the kitchen.
Sarah stays away out of guilt, a gesture that is partly selfish but also respects Handful’s wishes. Sarah allows Handful to choose who she sees, rather than ordering Handful to be friendly once more to assuage her own conscience. Handful tends to her spirit tree, showing that this physical wound has not damaged her desire for freedom. Handful, like Charlotte, uses the pain of this unjust punishment to spur her determination to reach freedom. Yet Handful does not completely turn her back on Sarah, keeping a small part of their friendship alive.
A few days later Mother summons Sarah, and Sarah worries that her mother will be replacing Handful now that she is damaged. Instead, Mother tells Sarah that Father’s health has not improved in a year and the doctors are now recommending that he see a physician in Philadelphia. Mother expects Sarah to accompany him, given that all the other children old enough to go have families and careers to care for. Sarah realizes that Mother is sending her away to separate Sarah and Nina.
Mother treats the slaves like tools, who can be replaced at will once they are no longer functional. Mother uses the excuse of family duty to separate Sarah and Nina, sending Sarah away from her home. However, it is clear that Sarah does not belong in the South and may actually benefit from a trip to the more abolition-friendly North.
Handful. Handful must now walk with a cane, but the crutch she has is too tall for her small stature. Goodis takes it and cuts it down to size while whittling the top into a rabbit. Handful loves the gift and the fact that she can now get around more easily. Missus gets rid of her aging maid and calls a new girl, Minta, spooking the rest of the slaves into working harder so that they too will not be sold off. Yet even as Handful acts obedient, she keeps her true feelings secret.
Goodis offers kindness to Handful, something that she’s rarely experienced. Goodis also gives Handful back some of her autonomy, minimizing the effect that Handful’s limp has on her mobility. However, Handful’s life still clearly depends on the whims of her masters. The only option for Handful to preserve her autonomy is to continue secretly working towards freedom.
Sarah comes down to Handful’s cellar distraught over her imminent departure North with her Father. Sarah’s stutter has returned, and Handful feels truly sorry for this development in Sarah’s life, though she can’t shake the hatred that has wormed in at Sarah’s privileged place. Before Sarah leaves, Handful asks Sarah to write her a pass to be on the street. Sarah is hesitant at the danger, but writes the pass when Handful threatens to just steal ink and paper to write the pass herself.
Sarah is also relatively powerless in her own life, as evidenced by Missus’ ability to send her away despite her wishes and the return of Sarah’s stutter. Handful’s request echoes Charlotte’s earlier demand that Handful write her a pass. Now, Handful is the radical one while Sarah hesitates and worries over the danger. Handful knows that the danger of getting caught is far less important than the trauma of remaining a slave.
When Sarah has been gone a week, Handful sneaks out for the first time. She walks to 20 Bull street to see what happened to Denmark after the Work House. Memories of the Work House come rushing back, as the sight of the overseer whipping the woman with her baby on her back made Handful fall off the wheel, no wings to save her.
Handful finally confronts what happened at the Work House. She saw a baby, the ultimate figure of innocence, whipped for no reason other than its status as a slave. From birth, the world oppresses the slaves and it seems as though there is nothing Handful can do to stop it. This image of brutality shocked Handful into falling off the treadmill where her foot was crushed.
At Denmark’s house, Handful asks Denmark’s wife, Susan, if Denmark is home. Denmark comes out and invites Handful in. Handful tells Denmark that her mother was Charlotte and asks Denmark if he knows what happened to Charlotte. Handful then unwraps her mother’s story quilt for Denmark. Denmark sees himself on the last square and tells Handful that 1884 were the numbers on his lottery ticket. Handful tells Denmark that Charlotte was pregnant when she disappeared, and Denmark is visibly shaken.
Handful shares her mother’s story with Denmark, finally trusting him with this important family history. Handful seems to have grown closer to Denmark now that they have suffered together. Charlotte’s quilt does indeed end in an image of freedom, though Denmark’s lottery win is a far cry from the hard-earned freedom that Charlotte imagined for herself.
Sarah. Sarah gets Father to Philadelphia despite a harrowing ship journey and marvels at the absence of slaves on the street. The doctor can find no reason for Father’s sickness and recommends sea air. Sarah finds this laughable, but agrees to take Father to summer at an isolated town on the New Jersey Shore.
Sarah may not have wanted to go to the North, but she appreciates this possibility of a slave-free community once she sees it. The doctor can find no medical reason for Father’s sickness, suggesting that it is a disease brought on by mental or emotional suffering.
The New Jersey town is miniscule and austere. Father seems no better, and Sarah begins to feel hopeless feeding her father soup like a baby bird. Sarah writes a letter to Nina explaining where they are staying for the summer and praying that Father will improve soon. Sarah spends her days caring for Father and watching men and women swim in the ocean in different shifts. Sarah is fascinated by the women swimming, but is not brave enough to join them.
Sarah compares her father to a bird, echoing Charlotte’s care of the baby owl and Sarah’s promise to help Handful find freedom. Sarah has trouble breaking free of the restrictive social codes of Charleston, denying herself the pleasure of swimming even though it would be allowed here in the North.
In August, Father admits to Sarah that he is dying. Sarah expects him to insist on returning to Charleston, but Father tells Sarah that it has been easier to let go here. Finally, Father asks Sarah forgiveness for silencing her radical mind and her dream of being a jurist. Father never saw a way to make things better for the slaves or for Sarah as a woman, but he tells her to take care of herself now. He tells Sarah to go down to the ocean and passes on alone in his room. Sarah goes down to swim in the sea, soothing her grief at her father’s death by floating in the water.
Finally, the source of Father’s disease seems clear. He is wasting away after a life of denying his principles for the sake of greed and comfort. Though he agrees with Sarah that slavery is wrong and that women should have more rights, he refused to stand up for those ideas and now suffers physically from this emotional toll. On his deathbed Father spurs Sarah to take a risk for herself, and afterwards, swimming in the sea, Sarah has her own version of a baptism. From now on Sarah will start making decisions for herself.
Handful. Missus calls Handful in to advise her on the elaborate mourning gown she would like Handful to sew. Handful promises to have it ready in two days, and goes to the market to get supplies. There, Handful sees Susan wearing a red head scarf that Handful recognizes as her mother’s. Susan admits that Charlotte came to 20 Bull Street the night she ran away and traded the red head scarf for a less distinctive brown one. Susan then gives Handful the red head scarf back. Handful wears the red head scarf the whole time she sews Missus’ mourning dress. She finishes the dress and even Missus admits that it is the finest dress Handful has ever made, telling Handful that her mother would be proud.
Missus cannot purely mourn the death of her husband, but must put on an elaborate show as befits her social standing in Charleston. Handful mourns her own mother more simply, wearing her mother’s head scarf as a memorial. Handful also honors her mother with her sewing skill, as Charlotte had used sewing as a method of self-expression and economic independence. Handful has finally received some word of how her mother ran away, but knows not to hope for a miracle.
Handful tries to sneak out the next day, but Tomfry catches her and doesn’t believe that she has permission to go to the market. Handful can’t use the pass Sarah wrote because Tomfry knows Sarah is still up North, but Nina appears and tells Tomfry that Handful is on an errand for her. Once she gets to 20 Bull Street, Handful sneaks into a meeting Denmark is having with his “lieutenants.” The other men do not trust Handful, but Denmark calls her family.
Tomfry cannot give Handful even this small amount of freedom, knowing that he too will be punished if anyone suspects that he was helping Handful be disobedient. Nina stands up for Handful in Sarah’s absence, acting on the anti-slavery ideals that Sarah simply wrote into a pass. Handful uses that support to attend a revolutionary meeting, the first step toward achieving freedom for all the slaves in Charleston.
Denmark tells his lieutenants to step outside and tells Handful the real story of what happened to Charlotte. Denmark tried to hide Charlotte in a tenement house for free blacks, but a poacher caught Charlotte one night and captured her to sell her to a new owner.
Denmark and Handful have formed a familial bond, drawn together by their shared struggles and their love for Charlotte. Charlotte’s fate is now clear—rather than running away to freedom, she is now a plantation slave with an even more restricted life than she had at the Grimkés.
Sarah. Sarah makes it back to Philadelphia but decides not to go back Charleston right away. Sarah sends a letter to Mother letting her know that she needs to grieve alone, and Mother’s response accuses Sarah of cruel selfishness. Yet Sarah is mostly at peace in Philadelphia, though she is somewhat repelled by the grim presence of the Quakers in the city. However, Sarah knows she must leave before winter hits.
Sarah chooses to stay in the North, despite the accusations of selfishness. In the North, Sarah can live (relatively) free of the evil influence of slavery that is far more present in the South. Sarah still finds the Quakers grim, having been raised her whole life to distrust the Quakers’ simple lifestyle and dress.
On the boat back to Charleston, Sarah meets a Quaker man named Israel Morris. Israel challenges Sarah about her silence in the face of her family’s part in slavery. For the next two days, Sarah thinks of nothing but Israel, attracted to him even though she knows he is married. A few more days into the voyage, Israel tells Sarah more about the basic equality of all people in the Quaker faith. The two debate the intricacies of abolition and theology. Sarah even meets Israel’s wife, Rebecca, who invites Sarah to stay with them if she ever comes North again. Israel leaves Sarah with a book of the Quaker faith and a promise that she will write him when she finishes it.
Sarah confronts her prejudice against the Quakers by becoming friends with Israel. The Quaker religion speaks directly to the issues of equality that Sarah has been wrestling with her whole life, by denouncing slavery as evil and accepting women ministers alongside men. Despite the intellectual nature of Sarah and Israel’s conversations, their friendship is still tinged with impropriety because Sarah is unmarried. Meeting Israel’s wife is an important aspect of keeping this growing friendship socially acceptable.
Handful. Missus gathers all the family and slaves to read Master Grimké’s will. The goods are dispersed among the Grimké sons, and Handful stops paying attention until she hears that Missus will only be allowed to keep six of the slaves. All of the older slaves begin to shake at the thought of being sold. Sarah (who has returned) cries out that this isn’t fair, but Missus hushes her.
Handful and the other slaves are again treated as property who can be willed away with no regard for their own lives or wishes. Sarah tries once more to speak out against this injustice, but is completely ineffective in the face of the slave culture of the South.
Handful prays that she won’t be sold, thinking that her mother will return to this house when she can. Christmas comes, but the Grimkés do not celebrate. Missus agrees to have Jonkonnu, a Jamaican holiday celebrated by the slaves, and hand out presents to the slaves. As the slaves celebrate the finery that Missus gives them, Missus gives 5 slaves an extra jar of gargling oil and the news that they will be sold. Handful is in shock, but glad that neither she or Goodis were sold (though she is also surprised to find she cares for Goodis).
Handful wants to stay with the Grimkés because this house is the last tie she has to her mother, another instance of the complex relationship that slaves have to “belonging” at their masters’ houses. The holiday of Jonkonnu is an important moment of community bonding for the slaves, but Missus ruins this celebration by also tying it to the imminent departure of some of the Grimké slave “family.” Even Missus’ gift is an ironic twist of the knife, as the slaves use gargling oil to clean their teeth and appear healthier (and thus more valuable) to their new masters.
Missus splits more duties among the remaining slaves, and Handful adds house cleaning to her work. Sarah helps Handful clean the drawing room chandelier and Handful asks if Sarah is sad about her father. Sarah just answers that she feels trapped in this life. Handful comments that she may be a slave in body but Sarah is a slave in mind.
Sarah and Handful share the work, as Sarah is now more committed to acting on her ideals of equality after her trip North. Handful’s observation of the different ways that she and Sarah are both “slaves” points to the different ways that Sarah and Handful experience oppression, based on the intersection between racism and sexism.
Sarah. Sarah attempts many letters to Israel, but can finish none of them. Sarah feels called by the Quaker beliefs but cannot accept becoming a Quaker because the Quakers are reviled in Charleston. As Sarah packs away the letters, Mother comes in and sees the secret stack. Mother says nothing about the letters but asks Sarah to go help pack up Father’s library. In the library, Sarah reflects on the melancholy of her life in Charleston – especially now that Nina has reached an age where she no longer wants Sarah to mother her. Sarah picks up a biography of Joan of Arc and notices a fleur-de-lis pattern that reminds her of the silver button she once had.
Sarah usually finds comfort and self-expression in writing, but is now unable to even give that voice to her troubled thoughts. Becoming a Quaker means rejecting her family completely and facing public humiliation. However, Sarah has very little place in Charleston anymore now that even Nina’s companionship is complicated. Joan of Arc, a woman who faced disgrace and eventually execution for leading an army even though she was female, is another reminder that Sarah might have to pay the costs of losing her place in society in order to fulfill her true purpose in life.
That night, Sarah goes to her desk to write Israel another letter, and notices that all of her previous unsent letters are gone. Sarah rushes to Mother’s room, yelling about the offense, waking Nina in the process. At the sight of Nina, all anger leaves Sarah. The next morning, Sarah cannot manage to get out of bed, and she stays in her room for the next weeks. Handful brings Sarah trays of food and, one day, a sack of half-burned letters.
Sarah’s depression shows the physical consequences of her emotional and mental turmoil. Mother has once again removed Sarah’s ability to choose her own path in life, by burning the letters to Israel that might have promised a future as a Quaker. Handful displays an understanding of her friend by returning those letters to Sarah, but is unable to undo Mother’s damage.
Spring comes, but Sarah gets no better. Mother and Nina try to help, but nothing shakes Sarah’s depression. In May, Thomas arrives and begins yelling about the current political situation regarding slavery in Missouri. Sarah is interested in spite of herself and begins to argue with Thomas about his continued belief in the merits of sending the slaves back to Africa. After that day, Sarah begins to slowly rejoin life in the house. Finally, Sarah manages to finish a letter to Israel asking more about following the Quaker faith. She gives it to Handful to send.
The only thing that can cut through Sarah’s depression is the reminder of what she is fighting for. Thomas gives her a reason to live by forcing Sarah to argue about her deep-seated conviction that slaves should be free and equal to white citizens. Finally, Sarah is able to give voice to these opinions by writing a letter to Israel pursuing Quakerism. Again, Handful supports Sarah through this journey of self-discovery.
Israel writes Sarah back with encouragement in the Quaker walk, as well as the news that his wife Rebecca has died. Sarah begins to spend long hours listening for the Voice of God inside her, as the Quakers teach. Sarah and Israel keep up correspondence, and just when Sarah gives up on the Voice, she hears a Voice tell her to go North.
Sarah’s search for the Voice of God seems like a passive activity looking for something else to tell Sarah what to do with her life. She doesn’t hear it for so long because Sarah herself has to choose which direction is best for her. Sarah cannot rely on becoming a Quaker to give meaning to her life if she is not staying true to her own principles.
Sarah agonizes about the Voice telling her to go North, knowing the impropriety of travel by unmarried women and the scandal she would cause her family. Sarah does have a small inheritance that would give her enough to live on her own. Sarah remembers Handful telling her that she was enslaved in mind and worries over the silver button. Finally, Sarah decides to follow the Voice, be it God’s or her own desire for freedom.
Beyond traveling alone, Sarah is also going to live with a widowed man – something that would render her stained in society’s eyes due to the possibility of sexual immorality. Sarah, as a wealthy white woman, has the economic freedom to make this choice for herself, whereas Handful, an enslaved black woman, does not. Sarah finally takes responsibility for her own destiny, remembering her pledge to free Handful and deciding to follow the Voice to freedom even if it is not God’s order.