Two oppressed women, one a slave, the other a radical abolitionist in a male dominated society, strive for physical and spiritual freedom. Sarah Grimke and her slave Hettie "Handful" Grimke grow up together in the turbulent antebellum south. The story is told in alternating narratives beginning with Sarah and Handful's eleventh birthdays when Sarah receives Handful as a present; Handful is to be her personal slave. The young Sarah is revolted by the idea of a human gift and demonstrating an early passion for the law, she attempts to grant Handful her freedom. Sarah's domineering southern belle mother intervenes however and forces Sarah to accept the gift and apologize for her inappropriate behavior.
Forced together, Sarah and Handful forge a girlhood friendship. Sarah, a lover of books and learning teaches Handful how to read. Handful is careless however and is caught writing her name with a stick in the dirt. Handful is whipped and Sarah is punished in another way--her father takes away her access to his vast library believing that for a woman she has already become too educated. Sarah yearns to follow in the footsteps of her judge father and lawyer brothers but her hopes are systematically dashed.
Meanwhile, Handful's willful mother makes bold and dangerous decisions. As the Grimke's seamstress her beautiful quilts are the envy of everyone in the city of Charleston. She uses this fact to force more and more acts of rebellion, convincing Handful to write her slave passes and escaping through the skylight to meet with the freed black man, Denmark Vesey, who is planning a doomed slave revolt. When Handful's mother refuses to clear the sidewalk for a passing white woman, as is expected, she is forced to flee, leaving Handful behind.
Unable to stomach the oppressive nature of the slave-holding south, Sarah moves North as soon as she comes of age. Here she meets a handsome Quaker and becomes governess to his motherless children. Sarah is introduced to the Quaker church where she is inspired by the female preacher Lucretia Mott to finally follow her dreams. However Sarah's convictions prove too radical even for the Quakers and joined by her younger sister Angelina "Nina" Grimke she begins distributing pamphlets and traveling the country giving lectures against slavery and leading the abolitionist and women's suffrage movement.
Left alone by both her mother and Sarah, Handful goes on by taking up her mother's seamstress talent. In secret she completes her mother's story quilt, an elaborate piece of art that tells the story of their African origins, the cruelty they have suffered, their faith and their unending bid for freedom. Handful's mother returns home years later with the little sister that Handful has never met, Sky. Inspired by her mother and Sky's strength, Handful plans her own bid for freedom. She writes to Sarah asking for her help.
Remembering her girlhood promise to free Handful, Sarah returns in secret to the South though the city of Charleston has banned her. Hidden under the elaborate dresses that she made, Handful and Sky follow Sarah onto a steamboat bound for the north and freedom.
Best part of story, including ending:
The story is inspirational and though Handful is a fictional character she interacts with real historical figures such as the Grimke sisters, Lucretia Mott and Denmark Vesey.
Best scene in story:
Handful and Sky disguise themselves under dark veils and cover their faces in flour to pass for white women in mourning as they board a ship to the free North.
Opinion about the main character:
Sarah and Handful take different but equally inspiring roots to freedom, never letting go of their friendship and their aspirations.