The novel opens from Handful’s perspective, as she retells an African legend of people who could fly but lost their wings once they were taken to America. Handful knows the legend isn’t true, but loves the idea anyway. Handful, so named for her small size at birth, is a slave for the Grimké family living in Charleston, South Carolina in 1803. Handful usually helps her mother, Charlotte, with the sewing, but she is given to Sarah Grimké to be Sarah’s maid for Sarah’s eleventh birthday. Sarah describes her earliest memory of a slave getting whipped, an experience which caused Sarah to start to stutter. Sarah does not want to own Handful (called Hetty by the Grimkés) and even tries to set Handful free, but Sarah’s parents refuse to honor that wish. Handful does poorly as a lady’s maid, but Sarah keeps Handful as safe from her mother’s wrath as possible. Charlotte makes Sarah promise to help Handful get free some day.
On Easter Sunday, the Grimkés go to the Anglican church and Sarah begins to truly notice how mistreated the slaves are in the city. Fed up, Sarah decides teach the slave children the alphabet at their Sunday school, but is reprimanded for breaking the law against teaching slaves to read. Back at home, Charlotte is caught stealing green silk from Mary Grimké and is punished by tying her leg up for hours. Sarah defies her mother and brings Charlotte a basket of medicine. Handful accepts it gratefully, but with a new wariness about her white masters.
Sarah applies herself to studying her brother Thomas’ law books and covertly begins to teach Handful to read. The two girls get closer, as Sarah admits to Handful that she has chosen a silver button to remind her of her ambition to become a lawyer, and Handful tells Sarah to call her Handful instead of Hetty. Handful practices her letters by writing in the ground and signs her name, but one of Sarah’s younger sisters finds the words and tattles on Handful. Sarah’s father, John Grimké, punishes Sarah by refusing to let her read any books not fit for a lady, and sentences Handful to one whip lash. Sarah is absolutely heartbroken at the loss of her studies and Handful is even more worried as her mother’s behavior gets more and more rebellious. Sarah asks her mother for the privilege of being her newest baby sister’s godmother to soothe the loss of her dream to be a jurist. Sarah throws away her silver button, but Handful secretly rescues it. Handful makes a new start for herself by making herself a “spirit tree” using red thread that she once stole from Sarah.
Six years later, Handful and Sarah’s godchild Nina help Sarah get ready for a society ball. Sarah dreads these occasions, as she’s ill at ease in high society, but this night she meets Burke Williams, who becomes the first man that Sarah falls for. Handful feels further from Sarah than ever, now that Sarah’s attention is filled by Nina and Burke, so Handful busies herself helping her mother with the quilt that Charlotte has been sewing her entire life. Charlotte herself is distracted by a new relationship with Denmark Vesey, a free black man in Charleston who wants to empower the slaves and inspires Charlotte to begin saving to buy freedom for herself and Handful. The Grimkés leave Charleston to attend Thomas’ wedding (and keep Sarah away from the merchant-class Burke) and Handful takes advantage of the absence to sneak into the library and read the price of her mother and herself: 1,050 dollars. This discovery forces Handful to see her own self-worth – far higher than any amount of money.
When the Grimkés return home, Burke begins courting Sarah in earnest. Handful finally meets Denmark Vesey, but resents his condescending tone towards slaves who bow and scrape to white masters. Sarah receives an exciting proposal of marriage from Burke just as her father’s job as a judge embroils the family in an impeachment case due to biased sentences. John Grimké is acquitted, but his health is badly compromised. Meanwhile, Handful finds out that her own mother is pregnant with Denmark’s child. Sarah, dizzy with love, plans for her wedding until Thomas tells her that Burke is actually engaged to three other women, and has simply been courting Sarah to convince her to have sexual relations with him before they are legally wed. The Grimkés break off the engagement and Sarah retreats into isolation, prompting Handful to give Sarah back her silver button.
In town the next week, Charlotte is accosted by a white guard for refusing to step into the mud to let a white woman walk by unsoiled. The guard tries to arrest Charlotte, but Charlotte runs and disappears. Handful grieves the loss of her mother with such fervor that Sarah realizes how silly she has been to treat Burke’s betrayal as a tragedy. Sarah pledges never to marry and begins to devote herself to the news of abolition that she hears from the North. Handful wakes herself up from her grief-stricken stupor by finishing her mother’s quilt.
In 1818, six more years later, Sarah has given Handful back to her mother (Mary), and Handful takes care of all the sewing for the Grimké family now that Charlotte is gone. Handful joins the African Church as a way to connect with other slaves in the city who are planning to rebel, while Sarah joins the Presbyterian Church in an attempt to find a religion that better fits her abolitionist leanings. Handful is arrested by the guards for attending the revolutionary church and suffers an accident in the horrific Work House punishment that leaves her with a life-long limp. Sarah is aghast that her mother allowed this to happen to Handful. Sarah and Nina try to help Handful, but Handful can no longer bear being friends with white women when white people continually treat her so poorly.
Sarah’s mother, angry at the motherly bond between Sarah and Nina, sends Sarah north with John to try to improve John’s health. Once in a private resort on the New Jersey shore, Sarah’s father admits both that he does not plan to get better and that he truly agrees with Sarah about the evil of slavery. He dies in the North and Sarah writes home to say that she will not be returning immediately. Back in Charleston, Handful visits Denmark Vesey and tells him that her mother was carrying his child when she disappeared. Handful finds out that Denmark and his wife actually helped Charlotte get away those years ago, but have no idea where she is now. Handful begins to sneak out the way her mother used to, though she acts obedient in front of Mary, even sewing her an incredible mourning dress.
Sarah finally takes a boat back home and meets a Quaker man named Israel Morris who gives Sarah a book about the Quaker faith, with the promise that Sarah will write him once she finishes it. Sarah tries to adjust back to life as a spinster in Charleston, but cannot stop thinking of Israel Morris. Handful is worried about being sold in the wake of John Grimké’s death, but Mary keeps her on for her sewing ability. Sarah falls into a depression that is only broken when Thomas comes and forces her to argue against the prospect of freeing slaves to send them back to Africa. Sarah finally gains the courage to write Israel to ask how to become a Quaker and hears a “Voice” tell her to “Go North.”
Two years later, Sarah lives with Israel Morris, his children, and Catherine, Israel’s sister who cares for the house now that Israel’s wife has passed. Sarah misses Nina and Handful, but throws herself into becoming a true Quaker. Yet Catherine thinks it is improper that Sarah lives with a widower for whom she clearly has feelings. Catherine brings her concerns about Sarah to the Quaker elders, where only Lucretia Mott (the lone female minister) defends Sarah, and Israel is forced to ask Sarah to leave. Back in the south, the Grimké household has become a horror for the slaves now that Sarah is gone and there is no one to keep Mary in check. Handful escapes to Denmark’s house every chance she gets and gives her all to the rebellion efforts, as they continue to recruit more slaves in the area.
Handful gets even more involved in Denmark’s plan to rise up against the white masters by stealing two bullet molds for the Black army, using the natural invisibility of women slaves to sneak into the guard house. Nina writes to Sarah about how unbearable life has been in Charleston these days and Sarah decides to return home. Sarah’s new Quaker look catches attention, but not as much as the news that the slaves are planning a revolt. Sarah becomes a pariah by defending the slaves in public, and realizes that she must go north again. Handful finds out that one of the house slaves that Denmark recruited has betrayed them to the white masters. The guards thwart the plans before they can come to fruition, and Denmark and the other leaders are put to death with strict orders that no one is to mourn them.
In 1826, Charlotte returns to the Grimké house with Handful’s 13-year-old sister, Sky. They had run away from another plantation where Charlotte was punished harshly for all her small rebellions, but Handful is glad to see the same revolutionary spark in Charlotte’s eye when she sees the quilt that Handful finished. Sarah is now staying with Lucretia Mott, and is surprised to receive a letter from Handful telling of her mother’s return. The news sparks Sarah’s desire to become a Quaker minister and fight against the injustices that women like Handful and Charlotte face.
Sky does not fit in to the house slave life at the Grimkés, getting in constant trouble until she is given charge of the garden to keep her from being sold. Charlotte, though weak, gives Handful hope by working on more quilt squares. In Philadelphia, Sarah wears her silver button despite the Quaker distaste for fancy decorations, spurred on by Lucretia’s radical ideas. Sarah receives news that Nina plans to marry a Presbyterian minister, then is shocked to hear Israel come and propose to her. Though Sarah loves Israel deeply, she has to reject his offer in order to focus on her goal of becoming a minister. Handful finally gets some good news, as Charlotte reveals that she has been saving money from odd jobs for years. There is almost $500 hidden in Charlotte’s quilt.
For the next year, Sarah writes letters to Nina, sharing news of her life in Quaker Philadelphia and hearing about Nina’s scandalous rebellions to the Presbyterian church in Charleston. Sarah is disheartened at the lack of racial equality she finds in even abolitionist circles, but is heartened when she hears that Nina has broken off her engagement and is coming North to live with Sarah.
Moving forward to 1835, the Grimké slaves now suffer under the hand of Mary Grimké and Mary’s eldest daughter, also named Mary (Little Missus). Charlotte passes on, as peacefully as possible given her situation. Sarah and Nina cause an uproar when they sit in the “colored” pew one Sunday meeting. Backlash of anti-abolition sentiment has been growing, but Nina and Sarah inspire each other to keep resisting these mobs. Yet they are expelled from the Philadelphia Quaker meeting when Nina publishes a letter in the well known abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Left without a home, the sisters go to stay in secret at the house of two black Quaker women and continue writing anti-slavery pamphlets to send South. They catch the attention of William Lloyd Garrison and Elizur Wright, the editors of the most well-known anti-slavery movements. Elizur invites the two women to join a series of lectures against slavery in New York. Sarah is terrified to take this on, with her speech impediment, but Nina encourages her and the sisters accept.
Handful manages to get a hold of one of the pamphlets Sarah wrote, and is completely amazed by the words. Sarah and Nina speak to huge crowds in New York, supported by Theodore Weld even when other members of the Anti-Slavery Society are scared by the outcry against abolition. As Nina and Sarah continue to tour giving speeches, Nina begins to start a romance with Theodore. Yet Sarah and Nina are soon blasted in the press for their unladylike behavior and some members of the Anti-Slavery Society ask the sisters to stop speaking in order to keep their pro-feminist ideas from distracting from the fight against slavery. Sarah and Nina insist that they can fight for the rights of both women and slaves.
Handful reaches her breaking point when the younger Mary finds Charlotte’s quilt and calls it ugly. Handful writes to Sarah that she and Sky will be escaping soon by any means possible. Sarah receives the letter at the reception of Nina’s wedding to Theodore, heralded as the “abolition wedding.” Sarah is happy to think that Handful and Sky are coming North, imagining them living with the two Quaker women who offered the sisters shelter. Sarah goes back to Charleston, ignoring the ban that the city has placed on her for her anti-slavery notoriety, to do whatever she can to help Handful. Sarah is scared for Handful, and wants Handful to wait for her to try asking Mary to grant Handful freedom. Handful is skeptical but agrees, though she is not surprised when Mary only agrees to free Handful and Sky upon her death. Handful is unwilling to wait a single day more and plans to leave as soon as possible with Sky.
Handful and Sarah come up with a plan to repurpose the Grimké women’s mourning clothes to hide Handful and Sky as ladies in mourning. Dressed in black dresses, with black veils over powdered faces, Handful and Sky manage to slip past guards on a boat to the North as Sarah carries Charlotte’s quilt in her luggage.