Sarah. Sarah stays at Israel’s house just outside of Philadelphia, after months of arguments with Mother about the true piety of following this Voice to live with a widowed man. In the end, Mother gives Sarah permission as long as she says the trip north is for her health. Yet Sarah is surprised that she misses the city of Charleston even as she is glad to be rid of slavery.
Religious pursuits are one of few areas where women could seek excuse for traditional married life. Still, Sarah must keep her true reasons for going North a secret. This concession is another reminder that Sarah will always belong to Charleston in some ways, whether she wants to or not.
Sarah keeps busy trying to help Israel’s sister, Catherine, care for a house of eight children. Catherine complains about Sarah’s fine clothing, as Sarah should dress plainly if she is serious about becoming a Quaker. Sarah is more interested in talking with Israel about Quaker theology.
Though Sarah is not married, she performs the traditional domestic chores of a wife and mother. Catherine unfairly judges Sarah for her appearance and background, rather than taking Sarah’s commitment to Quakerism seriously.
In September, Israel’s youngest daughter Becky sneaks into Sarah’s room to sleep after having a nightmare. Sarah notices a necklace in Becky’s hand. Becky shows Sarah a locket with the name Rebecca on it and says it is hers—but Becky wants Sarah to wear it. Uncomfortable, Sarah agrees to wear it just once. Sarah finally wears it one day at the girl’s tutoring and Becky swells with pride.
Sarah naively accepts the locket from Becky, seemingly unaware that wearing it could fuel concerns that Sarah is trying to take Rebecca’s place as Israel’s wife. Sarah’s action may open her up to criticism, but Sarah focuses on the good it does for Becky. As when Sarah nurtured Nina, Sarah is determined to allow young girls to have some control over the world around them.
As a tutor, Sarah tries as hard as possible to teach the girls all the subjects that are normally taught only to boys. Sarah takes the girls outside for a natural history lesson on bird calls. The girls’ attempts at bird calls draws Catherine’s attention and Catherine notices that Sarah is wearing a locket. Catherine scolds Sarah for wearing Israel’s late wife’s locket. Sarah stammers that she didn’t know, and she gives the locket to Catherine, as Becky looks on, crestfallen.
Sarah ensures that the next generation of young women is not academically stunted the way that she was, helping to break one cycle of gender inequality. Despite these lofty ideals, Sarah’s life is still very much governed by acceptable female behavior. No matter Sarah’s intentions with the locket, she will be judged harshly for this perceived hint at taking over the role of Israel’s wife.
That night, Sarah paddles a small canoe into the middle of the pond and wishes the Voice would tell her to go South. Israel finds her and Sarah attempts to explain her mistake about Becky and the locket. Israel eases Sarah’s mind, reminding Sarah that Rebecca herself invited Sarah to visit before Rebecca passed.
Sarah still wants to take a passive role in her own life, wishing for a Voice to tell her to go home and avoid trouble. Israel reminds Sarah that their behavior is not actually immoral, and that Sarah should have more faith in herself.
Handful. Handful sneaks to Denmark’s house more than ever now that Tomfry is no longer there to keep the slaves in check. With Sarah gone, Missus hits the slaves for any mistake and lets the house fall into disrepair. Missus even writes letters to her sons asking for more money.
Without her husband, Missus is in complete control of the day-to-day running of the house, but also at the mercy of her male children to make decisions about finances. This cruel dichotomy does not excuse Missus’ racism and harsh treatment of the slaves, but it does explain how Missus too faces a level of oppression.
Handful gives Denmark a jar of sorghum she stole from the kitchen and goes to help Susan making corn fritters. Susan confesses that Denmark is angry because one of the lieutenants lost a list of slaves who have agreed to join the resistance movement. Denmark has been recruiting local slaves to freedom, using the Bible to justify to any skeptical slaves the righteousness of what they are doing. Handful agrees with Denmark wholeheartedly, though she has not signed a list, as those are only for men.
Handful and Susan are relegated to the kitchen, though the slave revolution would affect their lives just as much as the male slaves. Denmark reclaims passages from the same Bible that the Anglican church uses to keep black people enslaved to offer hope of freedom. Though Denmark is doing important work towards racial equality, he is still failing at gender equality.
Handful asks Denmark what would happen if a white person found a list of names. Denmark says that every slave on the list would be whipped, and Handful begins to worry over hiding places. Thinking of her mother, Handful offers to sew the lists into a quilt to make sure they will never be found.
Handful ingeniously helps Denmark find a way to improve the methods of the revolution, but she still is not recognized as an equal contributor. Quilts are again tied to freedom, literally protecting the slaves’ efforts from the masters’ eyes.
In January, Nina tries to start a Female Prayer Society as a front for exposing the evils of slavery. The other girls get bored, however, and turn to talk of dresses and gossip. In March, Nina finally crosses a line by showing the girls the scar on Handful’s foot from the Work House. The other girls scream, and one even faints. Missus hears about the hubbub and strikes Handful with her cane. Nina is forbidden from having any more prayer meetings.
Nina uses religion as a cover for anti-slavery rhetoric, but is largely unsuccessful. When faced with the real consequences of slavery, the other white women maintain their innocence by making themselves victims of seeing this horror up close. Slavery must be kept silent in polite society to protect white women’s delicate constitutions, though these women directly benefit from slavery.
Handful gets busy making a quilt for Denmark to hide his lists, covering the front with red and black triangles for blackbirds flying. Handful thinks about Nina’s lectures and Sarah’s guilt, and recognizes the good impulses behind them. Yet Handful knows that Denmark is right when he says that freedom will not come without bloodshed.
The quilt that Handful makes for Denmark is dedicated to the pursuit of freedom, covered with the wings that Charlotte used to inspire Handful to strive for escape from slavery. Meanwhile the red background acknowledges the violence and bloodshed that will be a cost of this freedom.
Sarah. Sarah takes the children on a picnic to celebrate the first warmth of April, further offending Catherine by putting the good tablecloth on the ground. Yet Sarah is too excited for spring after a bleak northern winter to care about Catherine’s complaints. Sarah does anything she can to entertain the children while Israel falls deeper into mourning Rebecca. Yet Israel also surprises Sarah by coming to the picnic.
Sarah does not truly belong to Quaker society, unused to the work and care it takes to live as a Quaker after a childhood of Southern wealth. Though Sarah is fully committed to Quaker ideals, she is not a seamless addition to the Morris household. Furthermore, the romantic possibilities between Israel and Sarah are forever disrupted by the memory of Rebecca.
As Catherine begins to clear the picnic things, Sarah makes a grave error in daring to touch Israel’s hand. Catherine sees them and accuses them of unseemly behavior. Israel tells Catherine it is none of her business and walks into the house. Catherine tells Sarah that she will have to move, no matter what Israel wants.
Even this tiny touch is enough to brand Sarah as a sexually immoral woman, a sign of the constraints on female behavior at the time. Sarah is losing yet another home because of her desire to live outside of social conventions.
Catherine insists that the whole family come to the Quaker meeting, though it is the monthly business meeting that Sarah usually does not attend. Sarah watches the lone woman minister with jealousy, wishing she had the courage to speak in Meeting. When the business portion of the Meeting begins, Catherine stands and asks that the elders find a new home for Sarah to avoid any temptation of an unmarried woman living with a widowed man.
Quakerism may accept female ministers, but the fact that there is only one female minister in the meeting suggests that this position is still unfairly biased towards men. Catherine also feeds into the unfair treatment of women by penalizing Sarah for simply having a friendship with a man who does not have a wife.
Catherine frames her request that Sarah move as a matter of the strength of Sarah’s faith as a Quaker, making it impossible for Sarah to stand up for herself and Israel. Israel too cannot speak for fear of dishonoring Rebecca’s memory. Only the woman minister speaks for Sarah’s right to stay where she is. Yet with everyone else in agreement, the Quakers decide that Sarah will find new lodging by the end of the month. Sarah thanks the woman minister after the meeting. The minister introduces herself as Lucretia Mott and invites Sarah to live with her and her husband.
Sarah’s status as an unmarried woman makes her dangerous to the rules of Quaker society. Again Sarah is silenced, unable to defend her actions with Israel without implicitly renouncing her faith as a Quaker. While Sarah’s fate is decided by men, Sarah finds an immediate kinship with Lucretia, the woman minister. This role model of feminine strength shows Sarah that there is still hope for her despite this heavy blow.
Handful. At Denmark’s house in April, Denmark tells his lieutenants that there are 6,000 names in his lists and he has set the date for the rebellion two months from now. Handful listens and serves the men refreshments. Denmark warns the slaves to be on their best “happy slave” behavior in these last few weeks. Handful thinks of her mother’s constant resistance and fingers the scab on her head that Missus caused last time she caught Handful sneaking out.
Denmark presents a vision of solidarity and community strength that will help the slaves achieve freedom. Denmark further strengthens the idea that what the masters see of the slaves is not their true identity. Still, women are left unacknowledged in this fight, though they suffer just as much as the men.
As Denmark explains the preparations of arms, Handful fiddles with a feather in her pocket and remembers when Charlotte told her that birds always have a funeral for their dead. Denmark’s right-hand man, Gullah Jack, talks about getting a bullet mold from the Guard House. There is too much security for a male slave to sneak in there, but Handful knows that she can get in there unnoticed, as female slaves always are.
Handful’s feather and Charlotte’s story come as a reminder that flight and freedom do not come without a cost. Handful must risk herself like never before, depending on the relative invisibility of enslaved black women to gain a significant weapon for the slaves. Handful can use the way that white people judge and underestimate black women to her advantage.
Sarah. Sarah gets a letter from Nina detailing how terribly Mother has been acting as well as Handful’s new potentially dangerous sneaking out. Nina ends by saying that she feels alone and helpless in Charleston, a feeling that Sarah understands. Sarah packs her things to leave Israel’s house as Israel comes in to her room and offers to fight this decision. Sarah refuses, holding up Nina’s letter as evidence that she is needed at home. Israel asks Sarah to promise that she will come back when things calm down, but Sarah cannot.
Sarah and Nina each feel helpless when they are alone, and need each other’s support in order to fight against oppression (slavery in Nina’s case and gender oppression in Sarah’s). Sarah chooses to be with her sister, instead of pursuing a relationship with Israel.
Handful. The night before Handful is set to steal the bullet mold, she has sex with Goodis to see what all the fuss is about. He is careful to make Handful comfortable in the old stable and Handful feels true tenderness for him. Goodis kisses Handful’s scars, bringing tears to her eyes. The next morning, Handful goes to ask Nina for a pass to the market. Though Nina knows Handful is not going to the market, she writes the pass.
A relationship for Handful is also less important than the work she is doing for the slave revolt. Still, Goodis demonstrates a relationship that is based on true affection rather than the troubling power imbalance seen between men and women elsewhere in the book.
Handful walks into the Arsenal where the Guard keeps all their supplies and pretends to be filling in for their regular cleaning lady. Handful starts sweeping as the guards clean their muskets, and she surveys the room. Handful looks through chests while “dusting” and is nearly caught when her lame foot causes a drum to rattle. Yet the guard just warns Handful to be more careful. Handful finds the bullet molds and hides two in her basket, then walks straight out of the Arsenal.
Another example of racism comes in the guards’ inability to tell Handful and the regular maid apart, because they have never bothered to even look at the maid as a human being. It seems as though Handful’s injury will ruin the plan, but Handful is able to use the guards’ poor opinion of slaves to her advantage by pretending to be clumsy.
That night, Handful reflects on Denmark’s praise when she gave him the bullet molds. She can’t sleep and wishes that Goodis was awake. The reality of the death that those bullet molds will cause sinks in, and Handful wishes that the moon could fit in the bullet molds instead of lead.
Handful loves the feeling of belonging that she has with Denmark and Goodis, though she regrets the violence that she is now involved in. Handful wishes for a peaceful resolution, but knows that the wounds that slaves have already suffered and the stubborn white mindset towards slavery make a peaceful progression towards equality impossible.
Sarah. Sarah comes back to Charleston in full-fledged Quaker garb, much to the chagrin of Mother and the town. Sarah can’t believe that her welcome is an insult about her dress, though Nina immediately wants one when she hears that the dress symbolizes anti-slavery ideals. Nina also tells Sarah that there are rumors of a slave revolt. Mother cannot believe that slaves would think of such an elaborate plan, but Sarah can see it happening all too well. Charleston officials have determined that there is no true threat, but the atmosphere is still tense.
Sarah now marks herself as a Quaker, officially becoming an outcast in Charleston society. Nina too seems ready to leave Charleston for good. Mother underestimates the intelligence of the slaves, and this type of casual racism is one reason why the slave revolt may actually succeed. The less the officials suspect of the slaves, the greater chance they have to effect change when they rise up.
Sarah looks for Handful the next morning and finds her joking with Goodis. Goodis jumps up at the sight of Sarah and leaves Sarah and Handful alone. Sarah awkwardly hugs Handful, and asks many questions about life in her absence. Sarah gathers her courage and asks Handful if the rumors about a slave revolt are true. Handful asks what Sarah has heard, and is far too relieved to hear that officials do not believe that the revolt is true. Sarah remembers the day that she and Handful shared all their secrets on the roof and knows that Handful will now keep her secrets.
Sarah wants to re-establish a friendship with Handful, but the gaps between them are too large at the moment. In order to protect the slave revolt, Handful cannot risk confiding in any white person, even one as seemingly committed to equality as Sarah. They are no longer children, and Handful now has some power of her own (as part of the revolt) to keep in mind.
Nina and Sarah go to the Charleston Quaker meetinghouse the next Sunday. As they walk across town, they hear a commotion in the market as militia men march with muskets toward the noise. Slaves run in every direction and a guard stops Sarah to interrogate her about her “abolition” clothing. Sarah says that she is a Quaker, and the guard attempts to detain Sarah for insurgency. He gives up when he hears that Sarah is a Grimké, but warns Sarah that the slave revolt has been stopped. Sarah speaks out for the slaves to revolt, aweing Nina with her audacity.
Though Sarah wears her abolitionist ideals literally on her sleeve, Sarah’s blood as a Grimké still offers her protection, no matter how much she feels like she doesn’t really belong to that family. Sarah finally speaks up for the slaves in a public way, using her privilege and safety as a wealthy white woman to advocate for people, like the slaves, who cannot risk their health and safety to speak for themselves at this tense moment.
Many slaves are arrested for the intended revolt, and the white citizens of Charleston remain in a panic. As rules for slaves get stricter, Sarah and the Grimkés are targeted for Sarah’s outburst in favor of abolition. Sarah feels powerless, having reached the age of 30 without doing a thing to end slavery. Sarah remembers her silver button and knows that she can not stay in the South.
Sarah feels the cost of speaking up for what is right, but instead of backing down she now actually wants to do more. Her silver button is now a constant reminder that she has to do something to end slavery for good, rather than just free one slave. Sarah is not fleeing North to protect herself, but going North so that she can work for abolition.
Handful. Handful waits two days after the failed rebellion for safety, then goes to Denmark’s house. He has not been arrested, and even the quilt with the lists is untouched, though Handful thinks the black triangles now look like a bird funeral. Denmark tells Handful that most of his lieutenants have been arrested and he has to leave Charleston to keep hope of rebellion alive. Denmark thinks one of the house slaves betrayed them to their master. Denmark gives Handful the quilt and asks her to burn the list of names.
The slave revolt was stopped before it could even begin, as if the birds on Handful’s quilt were shot before they could fly. A constant danger in recruiting new slaves to the revolt was that a house slave might fear punishment so much that they tell everything to their master. Denmark even suggests that some house slaves get so used to living with white people that they feel more loyal to their white masters than to their fellow slaves. Burning the list is the safe choice, but it is also a harsh reminder that all of their hard work can easily disappear.
Four days later, Denmark is also arrested. Legends about him fly thick, but Handful realizes that half of what Denmark said about their forces was not true. Sarah finds Handful to tell her that Denmark was found guilty and sentenced to death, unaware how important Denmark was to Handful. Sarah then warns Handful that any black person who mourns Denmark in public will be whipped.
Denmark’s attempts to build confidence were actually lies, as their numbers and arms were never as plentiful as Denmark said. Freedom seems farther away than ever—Handful’s dreams are dead and she is not even allowed to publicly mourn them, or the man who had become a father figure.
On July 2nd, Handful follows Denmark from the Work House as he is taken to his place of execution. Denmark and three of his lieutenants are chained in separate wagons. Rolla, Ned, and Peter are taken to be hung at Blake’s Lands, the place for pirates and criminals, but Denmark’s wagon goes to an ordinary field. Handful follows and is the only one to see Denmark’s death. The guards bury Denmark in an unmarked grave, but Handful creeps after them and marks the grave with a stick strung with red thread.
The city guards add another insult by executing Denmark in secrecy so that no one can even witness his death. This is the ultimate disrespect to Denmark’s spirit. Handful risks her own safety to honor Denmark with the red thread that she uses as a reminder that one day the slaves will be free.