In this novel, Sarah is 11 years old when she receives Hettie as a gift for her birthday. Her aversion to slavery prompts her to try to give Hettie, know as Handful by the other slaves, back, or to free her, but her parents ignore her requests. Sarah teaches Hettie to read, a crime for which they are both punished. Although they are friends as children, their lives take different paths as they grow up. Sarah travels north with her dying father and takes up with a group of Quakers, which causes a rift between her and her family. She lives apart from them for several years, and along with her younger sister, becomes involved with the abolitionist movement. Meanwhile, Handful becomes involved in a slave rebellion plot and tries to secure her freedom. The book alternates between the two characters' points of view. Both women struggle to find freedom from traditional roles that have been assigned to them. Loosely based on the true story of Sara Grimke, a Charleston aristocrat who becomes a spokesperson for women's rights and the abolitionist movement, this novel scrutinizes the horrors of slavery and the limitations place on women in the early 19th century.