Handful. Missus’ eldest daughter, who the slaves call Little Missus, now lives at the Grimké house after the death of her husband. Little Missus brings 9 slaves and renews the harsh punishments and strict rules that Missus had relaxed in her old age. Charlotte is weak and unable to do much other than go over and over her story quilt. Handful listens as best she can as she sews all the new clothes and linens that Little Missus wants.
Just as Nina is like a more extreme version of Sarah, Little Missus is a more extreme version of Missus. Both those who fight against slavery and those who defend it seem to get more radical in the next generation. As Charlotte comes to the end of her life, she too seems obsessed with the legacy that she is leaving.
One afternoon, Charlotte shuffles out to the spirit tree with the story quilt wrapped around her shoulders. Handful rushes out to her, and Charlotte tells Handful that she has come to collect her spirit so that she can move on to eternal rest. Charlotte asks Handful not to remember her as a slave, but as a woman who never belonged to anyone but herself. Handful promises, and Charlotte passes away.
Charlotte ends her life with her spirit and her story quilt intact, showing how she never allowed her soul to be enslaved along with her body. Though Charlotte is dying a slave, Handful will continue her efforts towards freedom and honor her memory as a fundamentally free woman.
Sarah. Sarah and Nina go to the Sunday Quaker meeting and sit on the “Negro pew” meant for black people only. Sarah is hesitant to scandalize the white Quakers, but Nina is emboldened by William Lloyd Garrison’s radical abolitionist newspaper The Liberator to do everything she can to fight racial inequality. Sarah knows that even the North has become dangerous for abolitionists, but she presses on in support of Nina. Sarah worries over Nina, already thirty and still unmarried. Nina is too headstrong to fit in easily with the Quakers.
With Nina in the North, Sarah is pushed to ever more radical actions. Newspapers like The Liberator helped sway many people towards the cause of abolition, but the strength of numbers is not a guarantee of freedom. Nina, unlike Sarah, does not seem to care about belonging in the Quaker community or following social rules. Nina (who presumably has not faced as many obstacles as Sarah) only cares for doing what is right.
Sarah and Nina sit down next to Sarah Mapps Douglass and her mother Grace, the two black members of the Quaker congregation. Sarah worries about putting Sarah Mapps and Grace in danger as two Quaker Elders come over to ask Sarah and Nina to move. The four women huddle together on the bench as Sarah and Nina refuse to get up. Eventually, the Elders leave them be. Sarah Mapps and Grace visibly sigh in relief. Sarah thinks about how well Nina’s brash action and her own quiet thinking complement each other, like two wings of one abolitionist bird.
Though it is Sarah and Nina who choose to sit where they don’t belong, it is likely that Sarah Mapps and Grace would be the ones who are actually punished. Though the North is free from slavery, it is not free from racial prejudice or unfair treatment. Sarah’s intelligence and rhetoric go well with Nina’s bravery and passion. Comparing them to a bird reinforces the ties between freedom and flight.
Three weeks after the Negro pew incident, Catherine asks Sarah and Nina to come down before dinner. The sisters are surprised to see the Quaker Elders, and Sarah’s heart falls when she sees that they carry a copy of The Liberator. It turns out that Nina sent a letter to William Lloyd Garrison that was published in The Liberator. Nina protests that she didn’t expect the letter to be published, but Sarah and Nina are now branded inflammatory abolitionists. The Elders ask Sarah and Nina to disavow the letter or be expelled from the Quaker society. Nina and Sarah stand firm to their anti-slavery ideals.
While the Quakers were able to ignore Nina and Sarah’s small protest, they cannot ignore Nina’s much more powerful words. In writing, Nina is far more dangerous to those who would rather keep abolition slow and steady. Rather than ensuring their own safety in the Quaker community, Sarah and Nina choose to stay true to their principles.
Handful. Handful writes to Sarah that Charlotte has died. Handful and Sky hold a small funeral for Charlotte, spreading rice on her grave so that Charlotte’s spirit can return to Africa. Handful steals stationary and Missus’ stamp to sneak the letter past Little Missus, who spies on the slaves more than ever.
Handful and Sky give a funeral for Charlotte that honors their African heritage rather than her life as a slave. In writing, Handful can “pass” for a white woman, using the stationary and stamp of the Grimké family.
Sarah. Sarah and Nina look desperately for another place to stay in the North, but their reputation as revolting abolitionists closes every door. Just when Sarah is going to give up, Sarah Mapps Douglass writes offering to let Sarah and Nina stay secretly in her attic. Sarah and Nina leave Catherine’s house the next day.
Sarah and Nina receive more support from the already vulnerable Sarah Mapps than they do from any of the Quakers who profess to be for abolition. Kidd recognizes the personal costs that come from standing up for an unpopular, but morally right, position.
Sarah Mapps is a well-educated woman who teaches the Quaker children, while her mother Grace makes beautiful hats that no Quaker can wear. Nina and Sarah clean out the attic and sequester themselves in the house to avoid the neighbors who disapprove of white and black women living together. The sisters spend their time reading books and old letters. Sarah thinks constantly of her promise to Charlotte, who has now passed, that she would free Handful.
Sarah Mapps and Grace are complex individuals with intelligence and artistic spirits that are not fully utilized in the Quaker community. The North may be respectful of free blacks, but the prejudices against true integration are still very strong.
Sarah comes up with the idea to write an apology for the anti-slavery cause directly written for the wives and daughters of Southern slaveholders. Nina suggests that she write the letter to the women and Sarah write a pamphlet for the Southern clergy. Sarah and Nina write pages and pages each day, then send them down to Sarah Mapps to proofread.
When the pamphlets are almost finished, Nina receives a letter from William Lloyd Garrison. It encloses a letter from Elizur Wright, the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, asking Nina and Sarah to consider joining a series of lectures against slavery he is planning to give in New York. Nina is incredibly excited at the chance to meet famous abolitionist orators like Theodore Weld, but Sarah is uncertain about speaking publicly. Yet Sarah realizes that the voices in her head telling her not to take this chance are only the voices of everyone who tried to silence her all her life. Sarah decides that she will join the lecture circuit.
Sarah and Nina are finally given a chance to publically speak out against slavery. Sarah is afraid, given her history of failing at public speaking and being silenced when she chooses to stand up for herself and others. Yet Sarah cannot let the judgment of others keep her from doing what is right. She must take advantage of this opportunity to help slaves like Handful and prove to herself that she can speak as strongly as any man.
Handful. Little Missus sends Handful to get some scotch whiskey, trusting Handful with many errands that she cannot give to the plantation slaves she brought with her. Sky also receives the brunt of Little Missus’ anger, and is punished with a muzzle after Little Missus hears Sky singing a teasing song about her.
Handful, as a house slave, is given more freedom than the plantation slaves. Sky does not understand how to protect her true feelings from the close proximity of the masters in the house. Sky especially is punished for her freedom and self-expression because Sky has not yet learned to pretend complete obedience to the masters.
In town, Handful sees a mob burning large bundles of papers. Handful picks up a paper that has floated by and sees that it is a pamphlet by Sarah Grimké. A man tries to take the pamphlet away, so Handful gives him the scotch in order to keep the paper. Handful laboriously works out the first words Sarah has written, calling all slaves “a person under God.”
Handful connects strongly with the words that Sarah wrote, as reading has always been one of the ways that Handful best expressed her self-worth. The friendship between the two women has been a strong reminder for both Sarah and Handful that slaves deserve the same rights as white people.
Handful gets ten whip lashes for returning late without the scotch, the first time she has been whipped since the lash she was given for learning to read. Handful survives the pain by thinking of Charlotte, as well as Sarah’s words calling her a person under God. The next day, Little Missus is extra kind to Handful as Handful measures Little Missus for a new dress, but Handful is reminded of her whipping every time the wounds on her back stretch.
Handful may have been punished for returning without the scotch, but her true crime was again reading. This brutal whip lash galvanizes Handful against her position as a slave, along with Charlotte’s legacy and Sarah’s abolitionist rhetoric, but she has perfected the art of keeping her true feelings secret from her masters even when she is forced into close proximity with them every day.
That afternoon, the mayor comes to see Missus. Handful overhears him tell Missus that Sarah and Angelina will no longer be allowed in Charleston, for their own welfare, due the uproar their pamphlets caused. Missus stands up for her family, indignant that anyone would disrespect a Grimké, but the Mayor’s ban stands. Handful realizes she might never see Sarah again.
Missus stays loyal to her children, asserting that they belong in Charleston even though Missus herself abhors their radical stance on abolition. Though Handful and Sarah haven’t seen each other in years, it is still a blow to Handful to think that her friend might never return.
Sarah. Sarah and Nina give their first lecture in New York, to a full house at one of the larger halls in the city. Theodore Weld defended Sarah and Nina’s right to speak despite the public outcry against women speaking to such a large group. Theodore trained the male orators in proper speech techniques, but let Nina and Sarah decide for themselves how a woman should speak. Nina appreciates Theodore’s respect.
Nina and Sarah are already faced with sexist opposition to their speeches before they have even said a word. Nina, however, is especially excited for this chance to speak her own mind, controlled by no one. Theodore’s license for Nina to speak how she wishes suggests that Theodore truly respects women on their own grounds.
Nina’s electrifying speech is met with resounding applause, and then it is Sarah’s turn to speak. She is nervous, and can feel her stammer returning, feeling especially plain in her Quaker clothing after her sister’s dazzling looks. Yet as Sarah starts to speak, she realizes that the words are coming smoothly. Sarah ends her speech advocating for women to end their silence and speak out for the slaves.
Sarah has come to terms with her identity, unflattering Quaker clothes and all. Sarah may no longer belong to the Quaker fellowship in Philadelphia but she still very much belongs to the Quaker theology and tradition. Sarah is finally able to speak smoothly now that she has taken control of her life and uses her talents to honestly stand up for her principles.
The lecture circuit spends weeks in New York, and then moves on to New Jersey. Nina and Sarah become both famous and infamous as the Grimké sisters who spur women to act against slavery, even receiving a letter from Mother that they will no longer be welcome in Charleston. Theodore Weld continues to advocate for the sisters, especially Nina.
Sarah and Nina are the most controversial figures of the abolition movement, as even those who agree with abolition have qualms about allowing women to speak. This gender inequality can touch even those who are most committed to reversing racial inequality.
Sarah watches Theodore and Nina steal every chance they can get to be alone. Sarah and Nina go to Massachusetts for a two-week rest with the Whittier family, dear friends of Theodore Weld. Mrs. Whittier tells Nina proudly that her son John Greenleaf Whittier and Theodore Weld have both pledged not to marry until slavery is abolished, unaware how much pain this causes Nina.
Theodore and Nina start to build a relationship after bonding over their passion for abolition. However, this very passion may prevent them from gaining the happiness of marriage. It seems that Nina, like Sarah, will have to forego marriage to a man she loves for the abolitionist cause, though this is not Nina’s choice.
In the summer of 1837, the Grimké sisters begin to have men in their audiences. The conservative Puritans are livid that two women dare to speak in front of men, and public outcry against the sisters grows even stronger. Sarah and Nina try to stay strong, now fighting not only for abolition but also the right of women to speak. By August, the sisters are forced to take refuge with Mrs. Whittier once more, after protestors throw rocks at them during their latest speech. Newspaper editorials blast Sarah and Nina for fighting for abolition just so that they can take black husbands.
Women who dare to speak to men scare the conservative Puritans who believe that men should be the only authorities. Sarah and Nina now have to direct their energies to two causes as they battle for both slaves and women. The newspapers use Sarah and Nina’s unwed status, a sign of their commitment to abolition over their own happiness, as a gross weapon to prove that the women have selfish motives for advocating for “equality.”
Elizur Wright, Theodore Weld, and John Greenleaf Whittier visit Sarah and Nina to ask them to step back from the abolition lecture circuit. Elizur and John are concerned that the debates over women’s right to speak are distracting from the anti-slavery message. Sarah and Nina are outraged at this latest attempt to silence them, arguing that women can do even more to help the slaves if women are allowed to speak freely. Sarah gets to work writing a new pamphlet, “Letters on the Equality of the Sexes.”
The men who were closest to the Grimké sisters withdraw their support when it matters most, for fear that the issue of gender equality will overtake their efforts for abolition. Sarah and Nina assert that their identities as women can be an asset to the cause of racial equality if the men will step up for the cause of women. They don’t go so far as to suggest true “intersectionality”—that all oppression is linked, and no true fight for freedom can be divorced from the fight for freedom of other oppressed groups—but Kidd seems to imply it in the narrative.
Handful. One Sunday in spring, Handful rolls down the quilt frame and checks on the stash of money in the black triangle quilt, then spreads Charlotte’s story quilt across the frame. Little Missus comes down to check on a cape she wanted mended, and notices Charlotte’s quilt. Handful rushes to hide it, but Little Missus calls the whole story (as represented on the quilt) gruesome. Little Missus insists that they treated Charlotte well as she leaves the cellar room, but Handful can tell she feels guilty.
Little Missus sees the quilt that was Charlotte’s life’s work and dares to call it ugly. Handful is insulted, seeing another example of white masters refusing to see anything human in their slaves. Still, Little Missus clearly knows that slavery is wrong, and feels guilt when confronted with all of the pain that her family caused Charlotte.
In the wake of Little Missus’ insult of the story quilt, Handful’s hatred of being a slave crystalizes. Handful tells Sky that they are leaving, soon. Handful hides the story quilt and the money with Goodis in the stables, then writes a letter to Sarah saying that Handful will bring Sky north as soon as she can.
The insult to her mother is the final straw for Handful. Aside from all the physical pain she has borne, this emotional blow is far worse. Handful and Sky are now throwing caution away completely for the chance to run for freedom.
Sarah. On May 14th, Nina marries Theodore Weld. Sarah finds the whole occasion beautiful, though Nina wears a free-labor brown cotton dress instead of a fancy gown. Mother even sends a letter blessing the wedding and calling Sarah her dear daughter. This union of two prominent abolitionists in front of a mixed-race congregation becomes known as the Abolition Wedding.
Nina achieves the happy ending society expects for women, but uses it to further the cause of abolition. The wedding shows how far Sarah and Nina have come from their roots as wealthy Southerners, yet Mother’s letter reminds them that they will always belong to their family.
As the wedding ceremony begins, Sarah thinks of all the things that led up to this wedding: Theodore’s agreement with Nina’s right to speak, the split among abolitionists over the issue of women orators, and the fight for women’s rights. Sarah was overjoyed when Theodore proposed to Nina, but scared for the loss of her own place in Nina’s life. Yet Nina quoted a passage from the biblical book of Ruth and asked Sarah to remain with her and Theodore even after they are married.
Rather than Nina softening her position on women’s right to speak in order to make Theodore more comfortable, Theodore had to choose to support Nina in order for their relationship to move forward and fulfill both Nina and Theodore. Nina also assures Sarah that she will always belong with Nina, even if she and Nina now have this large difference in lifestyle.
Nina pronounces herself and Theodore husband and wife, then the reception party begins. Sarah happily speaks to Lucretia Mott about their feminist accomplishments, until Sarah Mapps interrupts with a letter for Sarah. Sarah is terrified at the news that Handful is planning to run with Sky, imagining all the things that may go wrong. As the letter is only dated three weeks ago, Sarah decides to go to Charleston and see if she can convince Mother to have compassion and free Handful before Handful runs.
Nina takes control and power in her marriage by pronouncing herself and Theodore husband and wife, rather than leaving that to a man. Sarah’s cautious instincts take over as she hopes for a legal solution to Handful’s desire to run away. Sarah knows that her Mother offering freedom is a long-shot, but thinks that she might be able to appeal to Mother as her “dear daughter.”
Handful. Handful takes her sewing upstairs to watch the boats out in the harbor. She sees men and women boarding and disembarking as the guards carefully check for stowaways aboard the ships. Handful knows that a boat leaves on Thursday for New York and that tickets are $55. Now she just has to think of a way to get herself and Sky on it.
Handful had watched the harbor dreaming of freedom as a child, but she now has a concrete plan of how to make sure that she and Sky are on one of those boats. As an adult, Handful can finally take action towards her childhood longings.
One week later, Handful has an epiphany: she and Sky can use Missus’ old mourning dress to pose as mourning white ladies on a boat. Handful gets Missus’ and Little Missus’ magnificent black dresses out of storage and considers the alterations that would be necessary to fit the dresses to her or Sky’s figures. The only thing they need now is shoes. Sky sings a Gullah song while Handful sews, with the lyrics “If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you come from.” Sky reveals that she has made a tea of poisonous white oleander for herself and Handful to drink if their escape attempt fails.
Handful’s plan uses Charleston’s social conventions to their advantage, as mourning women are rarely bothered out of respect for their loss. Sky’s song reinforces the importance of family and legacy. Charlotte taught both her children that they were once a free people and they deserve to be free again. Sky’s tea underscores the life or death stakes of this endeavor. If they cannot reach freedom, they can at least end their lives in the manner of their choosing.
Sarah. Sarah gets back to Charleston, for the first time in 16 years. She relishes this return to the city of her birth, loving her city even as she is glad she left it. Yet the other Charleston residents cannot forgive Sarah for betraying the South. Sarah ignores them and goes to find Handful.
Sarah will always belong to Charleston, even as she seemingly fights against everything that Charleston stands for. Yet living as a slaveholder in Charleston is what convinced Sarah to fight so passionately for abolition, through her close interaction with Handful.
Handful is happy to see Sarah, but hopes that Sarah has not come to talk Handful out of her escape plan. Handful thinks that running away is a safer option than serving for the rest of her life. Sarah convinces Handful to wait until Sarah has a chance to talk to Mother before she does anything more. Handful is skeptical that Mother will do anything, but agrees to wait a few days.
Handful knows the dangers associated with running away, having listened to Charlotte’s stories. She has decided for herself that running away is more important for her mental and spiritual health than it would be to ensure her physical safety by staying with the Grimkés. Handful knows that she will have to fight for her freedom, as no one is ever going to give it to her.
Sarah waits four days before talking to Mother. She knows that she has to approach the matter very delicately if she has any chance of swaying Mother’s mind. Mother is already upset at Sarah’s Charleston ban, telling Sarah that it would be more prudent for Sarah to leave soon. Sarah promises to leave as long as she can purchase Hetty and Sky to take with her. Mother knows that Sarah means to free them, and explains to Sarah that the Grimkés cannot do without a seamstress, regardless of the laws that complicate emancipating a slave.
Sarah seems to have pushed her mother too far, as Mother would rather Sarah simply leave Charleston rather than supporting her daughter against the ban from Charleston society. Mother thinks only of her own comfort, citing a need for a seamstress as the reason that she cannot free Handful. Charleston society makes it incredibly hard for any one slave holder to free their own slaves and erode the power of slavery as an institution.
Mary Jr., Sarah’s older sister, joins the fight about Hetty and Sky, asking why Sarah feels the right to attack their way of life. Sarah explodes, asking Mary why the Southerners feel that God has given them permission to subjugate people, as if God himself were white. It is the most audacious Sarah has ever been. Mother stops Sarah and refuses to sell Hetty and Sky, but offers a compromise.
Sarah goes down to the cellar room that night and wakes Handful. Sky wakes too, and calls Sarah “the best of the Grimkés,” faint praise to Sarah’s ears. Sarah tells Handful that Mother agreed to set Handful and Sky free in her will, but Handful refuses to wait for Mother to die. Handful announces that she and Sky will be leaving in two days. Sarah asks what she can do to help.
Even if Sarah is the best of the Grimkés, she knows that she too has been complicit in slavery for too long. Now is the time to act against it. Handful refuses to spend any more of her life under a master or mistress, knowing that waiting for Mother to die means risking the possibility of suffering even more as a slave – or even dying a slave herself.
Handful. The night before they plan to leave, Handful and Sky gather together all the supplies they will need for their mourning disguises. As Handful sews pockets into their dresses to hide their money and possessions, Sky comments that the rabbit is outfoxing the fox. Sarah agrees to hide Charlotte’s story quilt in her trunk. Handful notices that Sarah is not the same timid girl she was, and says that her hair is shining like red thread. Handful goes out to the spirit tree one last time to gather clippings to put in the pouch she wears at her neck.
Handful, as a rabbit, should not naturally be able to trick the white masters, the foxes. Yet Handful and Sky are able to rise above what people say is the natural order of life for black people and white people and claim their freedom. They bring the quilt with them, honoring Charlotte’s legacy. Handful also brings her spirit back from the tree, and compares Sarah’s hair to red thread, now that Sarah is also fully committed to preserving the sanctity and autonomy of Handful and Sky’s souls in the free North.
The next morning, Handful and Sky act as if nothing special is happening. At nine o’clock, Sarah goes to give Missus one final goodbye, wearing her silver button at her throat. Handful and Sky paint their faces with white flour gum and get dressed in the mourning clothing, slipping tiny vials of oleander tea in their pockets. Handful tries not to get her hopes up about the free lives waiting for them in the north.
Sarah wears her button one more time, now letting it stand for pursuing freedom for the slaves at all costs. Handful and Sky hide their true identities from the masters and put on makeup for the hope of living in the North, where they will (hopefully) never have to censor their true spirits again.
Sarah bluffs past Missus’ butler and gets Handful and Sky ready in the carriage. Goodis notices Handful underneath the make-up and Handful worries that everyone will find her out. Still, the three women continue with the plan. At the harbor, they board a boat and find seats. Two guards board and ask Handful where she is traveling. Sarah tries to speak, but can’t get any words out. Handful remembers her dress and begins to cry as if she is trying to answer but can’t speak for grief. The guard apologizes for her apparent loss and moves on.
Goodis sadly cannot follow Handful to this freedom, as Handful is risking enough for herself and her sister. On the boat, Sarah is rendered speechless one last time. It is Handful’s ingenuity that saves Handful and Sky from scrutiny. Handful, though she has Sarah’s help, does not need Sarah to be her “white savior.” Sarah and Handful both contribute equally toward their freedom.
The boat’s engine starts and pulls away from the gangplank. Sarah holds Handful’s hand as they watch Charleston fade into the distance, and Handful pictures the scene as the last square on her mother’s quilt. Handful hears blackbird wings flapping as the boat sails off into the open water.
Sarah and Handful can finally publically show their friendship, joining hands as the boat leaves. Handful imagines this as the last square of the quilt that traces her family line into slavery and back out again. As Charlotte foretold, Handful invents her own wings and hears blackbird wings as she sails into the North and freedom.