Handful. In November of 1826, Goodis catches a cold and Handful goes to the stable to visit him, taking advantage of the lack of oversight in the house now that Missus is always busy fighting with Nina. As Handful passes the garden, she notices an old slave woman and a slave girl outside the back gate. The woman calls Handful’s name, and Handful realizes it is her mother Charlotte. The slaves help carry Charlotte inside, as she is weak and sick from the journey. Handful introduces the slave girl as her sister, knowing she must be Charlotte’s daughter by Denmark Vesey.
Nina’s fights with Mother indirectly achieve Nina’s goal of improving life for the Grimké slaves, simply by giving the slaves more autonomy in the home. Charlotte’s return brings Handful great joy, as her family is whole once more, but also sadness, as Charlotte has returned showing the full age and wear of her years as a slave.
As Charlotte sleeps, Handful asks the slave girl, whose name is Sky, about their journey. Sky loves to talk, telling Handful everything about their wandering trip away from a plantation. Charlotte even told Sky the same blackbird legends that she told Handful. Finally, Charlotte manages to wake up and Handful hugs her tightly.
Sky’s name is another image of freedom and flight, as Charlotte keeps the desire for freedom alive in both her daughters. Sky is more “free” with her voice and her opinions than Handful, after growing up on a plantation away from the secrecy and censorship of life as a house slave.
Handful shows Charlotte the story quilt that she finished and Charlotte is pleased that Handful got the order of all the squares correctly. Handful dreads telling Charlotte what has happened to Denmark Vesey while she was gone. Charlotte also looks worse for the wear from her time away, with whip scars and missing teeth. Sky tells Handful that Charlotte was rebellious and mischievous on the plantation no matter the consequences or punishments.
Handful took care with her mother’s quilt, giving the proper respect to Charlotte’s life’s work. Handful understands her mother the way few other people would, as they have suffered many of the same things. Yet Charlotte has suffered under a different type of slavery. On a plantation, the bodily toll of slavery is often harsher than it is in the house.
Sarah. Israel visits Sarah at Lucretia Mott’s house, with a new beard covering his face. Israel and Sarah have a growing friendship, though Sarah can’t help but wish for a deeper relationship. On this visit, Israel admits that his eldest son is getting married and Sarah realizes that the only thing keeping the relationship between her and Israel from moving forward is her own passivity.
Sarah takes Israel’s new beard as a sign of a new distance between them. Back in her old habits, Sarah passively waits for Israel to reintroduce a romantic element to their conversations. As Israel talks of his eldest son getting married, Sarah realizes that she is partly to blame for letting life pass her by.
Sarah loves living with Lucretia and talking with her about theology and philosophy. The two women form a bond deeper than friendship. One night, Lucretia gives Sarah a letter from “Nina” that is in Handful’s handwriting. The letter explains that Charlotte has returned to the Grimké house with a new daughter, Sky, and reiterates Handful’s hopes for freedom. Sarah tells Lucretia about the letter and Lucretia sympathizes with the obstacles facing slaves, particularly women slaves. Sarah realizes that she can no longer dream about helping Handful—she has to do something real. Sarah decides to become a Quaker minister.
Like Sarah’s friendship with Handful or her bond with Nina, Sarah and Lucretia’s friendship is also built on their struggles to fight gender inequality and speak out for abolition. Handful uses the freedom that writing gives her to communicate with Sarah her joy, but Sarah also sees Handful’s continued desire to be free. Seeing the good work that Lucretia has done as a minister inspires Sarah to begin the long, difficult journey toward becoming a female minster herself.
Sarah tries to write Handful a letter, but can’t find a respectful way to express her joy at Charlotte’s return (as Charlotte is still a slave even if she is “home”). Sarah gets the silver button out of her desk and remembers how Handful gave it back to her when she was on the verge of giving up on life. With the button on the desk, Sarah writes a letter to Handful expressing the depth of emotion she has for Handful and her mother and telling Handful that she is becoming a Quaker minister in order to speak against slavery.
While it is good that Charlotte and Handful are reunited, Sarah can’t help but regret the circumstances, as Charlotte returns to the slave life that she fought so hard to leave. The silver button shifts from representing Sarah’s dream to be a jurist to standing for her dream of becoming a minister. Knowing that she will soon be working to improve life for Handful and Charlotte, Sarah can speak freely to Handful once more.
Handful. Charlotte returns to sewing, but Sky does not fit well into urban life. She is too rough for house work and sings Gullah slave songs too loudly. Handful overhears Missus considering selling Sky in the spring to cover some of her growing expenses and rushes to form a way for Sky to earn her keep at the Grimké house. Charlotte insists that Sky is as smart as her daddy, Denmark, though Charlotte doesn’t tell Sky who her father is for fear that Sky will chatter that information to the wrong people. Handful and Charlotte decide to put Sky to work in the garden.
Sky’s upbringing on a plantation shaped her very differently than Handful’s childhood in a house interacting regularly with a white family. Handful learned how to be useful and silent for the Grimké family, but Sky does not know how to censor herself. This freedom of expression is a good thing, but it does complicate life for Sky in the house.
Sky has an incredible talent with the garden, coaxing even dead plants back to full harvest. The vegetables are so big and bountiful that spring that Missus keeps Sky on for good. Meanwhile, Charlotte does not tell Handful what happened to her while she was away, but begins to sew more squares of her story to add to the story quilt.
As fits Sky’s natural name, she does better in the open air than she did in the house. Charlotte again chooses to use the story quilt to express herself. Charlotte’s quilt is the truest expression of who she is.
Sarah. Sarah wears the silver button to Quaker meetings, offending more conservative Quakers like Jane and Samuel Bettlemen with her flashy dress. Sarah does not care, as she offends many elders with simply her desire to be a female minister and her radical stance on immediate abolition and equality for the slaves. Despite opposition, Lucretia keeps Sarah from backing down or giving up.
The other Quaker women judge Sarah solely on her outside appearance, not knowing that the button is the most important expression of Sarah’s Quaker commitment. As a female, Sarah is under intense scrutiny from those who believe that she should not be a leader for any cause. Still, the support of another strong woman keeps Sarah from giving up.
Nina writes to Sarah with news that she has fallen in love with the Presbyterian Reverend McDowell, enchanted with how Rev. McDowell defended her right to give anti-slavery lessons at the Sunday School. As Sarah reads the letter, Israel comes to visit her again. He seems nervous and tells Sarah that he had a dream about Rebecca giving him back the locket. Israel then asks Sarah to become his wife. Sarah, happy and afraid, asks if she can be Israel’s wife and a Quaker minister. Israel does not say no, but he does make it clear that Sarah would be too busy with family and house care as a wife. Sarah refuses Israel, knowing that she cannot be true to both him and to her calling as a minister.
Sarah’s situation seems to parallel Nina’s, as a religious man committed to ending slavery comes to ask her hand in marriage. Yet though Israel is a kind, good man, he still does not understand Sarah or her passion to end slavery. Sarah chooses her ambitions and her principles over marriage, even though she truly loves Israel. Ultimately, Sarah knows that she will be more fulfilled by her calling as a minister than she would be by the “perfect happy ending” that others imagine for a woman.
Handful. Handful works on the sewing for Missus while Charlotte sews nothing but her story quilt. As they work, Charlotte tells more about life in the plantation and the many times she and Sky tried and failed to run away. When the plantation master began to make sexual advances towards Sky, Charlotte knew it was time to leave or die trying.
Charlotte finally gets the chance to devote herself to work meant only for herself. While Kidd hinted at the possibility of sexual assault in Sarah’s relationship with Burke, black women were far more likely to suffer sexual assault, having no rights or voice of their own. Charlotte does everything she can to make sure that Sky will not have to bear that trauma.
Now at the Grimkés, Sky cannot easily leave the Grimké estate as she has no ownership papers and the regulations in Charleston are so strict. Still, Handful begs Nina to write Sky a pass, and she takes Sky by the house that used to be Denmark’s. Handful tells Sky that her daddy was brave with a big heart and lived to free all the slaves. Sky knows that Denmark was hung for the failed slave revolt.
Sky’s lack of ownership papers, rather than making her more free, actually constrain her movement even more. Handful knows that the risk of going into town is outweighed by giving the chance to tell Sky her legacy and her story, giving Sky a father and a family she can be proud of.
One night, Charlotte asks what happened to her stash of money. Handful thought that Charlotte took it with her, explaining that she looked everywhere but couldn’t find it. Charlotte laughs and tells Handful to look inside the lining of the first quilt they made together, the one covered in red and black triangles. All the money is still there, and Charlotte tells Handful to keep it safe so she can one day buy freedom for herself and Sky. Charlotte no longer expects to gain freedom herself.
Though Handful didn’t know it, she copied her mother exactly when she hid the list of members in the slave revolt. Like that list, Charlotte hid the money meant to buy freedom in a quilt covered in the black triangle wings that symbolize freedom. Charlotte finally gives up on her own freedom to ensure that her children will have a better life than she did.
Sarah. Sarah writes to Nina, explaining how she refused Israel’s proposal. Sarah no longer wants to be Nina’s mother or example, she just wants to be her sister. Nina writes back that she has also broken off her engagement, fed up with Rev. McDowell’s inaction against slavery. Nina is full of righteous indignation, but Sarah carries more regret for refusing happiness with Israel. Yet Sarah knows she would have regretted accepting marriage as well.
Sarah and Nina have each grown and matured, so that they can now interact as equals. Still, Nina is far braver about the future and the actions that must be taken for abolition. Sarah continually looks to the past, worrying about the choices that she did or didn’t make.
For two years, Sarah struggles to be accepted as a minister. Her speech impediment renders her messages in meeting incoherent, though Sarah studies Quaker theology night and day. She continues to try Nina’s tongue exercises, trying to rid herself of the stammer. Nina writes letters detailing her efforts to push the Charleston Presbyterians toward abolition, while Sarah writes about the fights for racial equality among the more liberal Philadelphia Quakers. Finally, Nina writes Sarah that she will be joining her in the North.
Sarah cannot speak up verbally, still suffering from her speech impediment. Though she has good ideas, she cannot communicate them to anyone but her sister. Sarah is far freer on the page than she is in person. While Nina fights simply to free the slaves, Sarah takes on the thorny issue of true racial equality when whites and blacks live together in the supposedly “free” North.
Sarah leaves Lucretia’s house and moves in with Catherine so that there will be room for Nina when she comes. Sarah marvels at the thought that two daughters of a Southern slaveholder will now be living in the austere North. Nina finally arrives, looking more beautiful than ever, and the two sisters run to each other and embrace.
Sarah and Nina’s childhood as slaveholders is perhaps surprising given their passion for abolition, but it also gives them a unique perspective on the true evil of slavery and plenty of evidence to convince others to fight slavery. Now that they are together again, Nina and Sarah can support each other and achieve even more in the abolition movement.